WWE Great Balls of Fire: Jerry Lee Missed Out - follow @bigvinvader
I thought Money in the Bank was a pretty bad show, the most recent example of bad booking and missed opportunities in WWE. The mere fact that RAW’s follow-up show was named Great Balls of Fire seemed like a major warning that it would be another let-down. Imagine my shock when the PPV turned out to be a blast from start to finish, unexceptional in most aspects, but completely solid and entertaining with few of the frustrating choices that have marred WWE’s booking lately. The name was announced months back, and seemingly failed to get a single vote of fan approval. What followed were about a dozen different logos, speculation regarding the name selection, and involvement from Jerry Lee Lewis’ legal team. It was about as bizarre as wrestling gets.
But then the build started to get really good, the matches looked promising, and it seemed like there was a chance for GBOF to actually deliver. Not only was the promise of an Iron Man tag match between the Hardys and Sheamus/Cesaro a perfect blow-off to their long-running feud, but the Women’s title match between Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks was a fresh match in an era of repeats. Much as they have their detractors, Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman have had several very good matches with one another, and the ambulance stipulation promised some brutal finality. Best of all, Samoa Joe was presented as a legitimate, threatening challenger to Brock Lesnar’s Universal Title. The build up to that championship match was one of the most successful things WWE has done in some time, making Joe seem the hardass, main event-level player he has deserved to be for his entire run in the company. Even with the seeming certainty of Lesnar’s victory, the lead-up was so successfully executed that it seemed a sure-shot crowd pleaser. Come the night of the show, nearly every match delivered on those initial promises, and even the lesser bouts on the card proved to be far more than satisfactory.
Initially, I was disappointed to see the Cruiserweight match between Neville and Akira Tozawa shunted to the preshow, but quickly regained interest when I realized just how into it the crowd was. For a division that’s been long-suffering as far as fan interest goes (and certainly hurting from the abrupt release of Austin Aries), this was definitely a welcome sight. Things didn’t advance much beyond a preshow-caliber level, but it was still a very capable contest from the two incredible cruiserweights.
Seth Rollins vs. Bray Wyatt was a bit of a head scratcher, with the feud itself seeming to come about out of nowhere, but in the capable hands of those two wrestlers it was a solid if unexceptional match. It was great, however, to see Bray pick up a clean win on PPV after the rocky year he’s had.
Enzo Amore vs. Big Cass was about as exciting in-ring as you’d expect from two such limited performers. That said, they made the right call in keeping it brief and putting Cass over, and in finally splitting the two up for that matter.
Easily the match of the night was the Tag Team Iron Man Match, with both teams impressing in a hard-fought, genuinely unpredictable contest. They made great use of the stipulation, with a number of shocking falls, including one for the odd couple in the first twenty seconds of the match. From there it was hard-hitting action, with several memorable high spots, all leading up to some of the most exciting final moments seen on PPV in some time. Matt got busted open bad after a dual dive with Jeff, and that hardway blood really contributed to the drama and excitement of the finish. It was a perfect example of how blood, even accidental, can add to the sport. Things seemed to be going the Hardys’ way until Cesaro scored a tiebreaker fall in the last thirty seconds. Jeff caught a quick reversal and went for a desperation pin at the two-second mark and came up just short. It was gripping stuff, and stole the show.
My personal favorite match, if not the outright best, was the Women’s Title showdown between Sahsa Banks and Alexa Bliss. More on that one in a minute.
The Miz vs. Dean Ambrose for the IC title was an unexciting prospect, especially given how many times that exact match has been done. It wasn’t bad, but it was one of the low points of the show, and I struggled to hold interest. The Miz going over with some interference from his corner was the right call, however, and his reign looks to continue as successfully as it deserves to.
Reigns vs. Strowman had pretty much everything I wanted to see in their blow-off match, and it even came with some surprises. The strikes looked stiff, and there was a ruthlessness in both men’s offense that took things up another level. They wasted no time in making their way up the ramp to the titular vehicle and from there the intensity of the brawl only mounted. Reigns lost the match for himself with a missed spear right into the ambulance, and what followed was some of the most insane, hilarious, and perplexing use of PPV time I’ve seen. After escaping and subduing Braun into the ambulance himself, Reigns drove off to the backstage area and backed the vehicle into a semi-trailer before fleeing. After about ten minutes of worked panic, Braun stumbled out (freed by the Dallas fire department and the Jaws of Life) bloodied, and limped off after Reigns. Even if that was the evilest, most heelish thing Roman could do, he still seems to be a total face somehow. Interesting.
Lesnar vs. Joe delivered on its promise, and of course offered up nothing in the way of surprises. Joe looked like an absolute killer, jumping Brock before the bell and slamming him through the Spanish announce table before even a minute had passed. From there, he dominated, locking in the Coqina Clutch several times and forcing Brock to nearly pass out. There were some hard strike exchanges, a number of German suplexes, and even more surprising displays of agility from Lesnar. Sadly, the whole thing only lasted six-and-a-half minutes before Lesnar broke another Clutch to hit a desperation F-5 and retain the Universal Title. As much as they made Joe look great and cemented his main event status, this one could have gone on longer, if for no other reason than to cast to unpredictability over the seemingly-obvious finish. Still, it was Brock’s best match this year, and a good showing for Joe in his first one-on-one main event.
The RAW Women’s Title match between Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks was my favorite match of the night, and my pick for best following the Iron Man Tag match. It was one of the best paced matched on the card, and delivered hard-hitting, impressive action for its entirety. Alexa is one of my favorite wrestlers in either brand’s women’s division, and her ring work continues to improve with each match. Beyond that, her heel character is one of the most successful and fully-realized regardless of brand or division. Sasha is a fantastic wrestler and never fails to put on an impressive showing in the ring, but her face character does very little for me (and her trash-talk in the ring is groan-inducing). Put together to fight for RAW’s top prize, it seemed certain that they’d put on a quality contest. They definitely delivered, up until the weak count-out finish, and it was a great example of the match quality in the current women’s division. That all said, I couldn’t help come away with some complaints.
GBOF had seven matches total, eight with the pre-show Cruiserweight Title match, and all but this one were men’s matches. I realize that the men’s division is still the primary focus for most fans and that’s incredibly clear from the presentation and booking of the product. The trouble is, as much as the company touts their progressive attitude and reminds us how far women’s wrestling has come in the last decade, things still have a lot of catching up to do. And don’t forget, just as WWE’s changes come as a result of the attitudes towards women’s wrestling that they helped create years back, so too does the complete change of policy lie in their hands. While they’re talking about the good they’ve done for women’s wrestling, they still fail to book more than one women’s match for every six men’s matches on a major show. Occasionally, if we’re lucky, we’ll get two. Are we to expect that we’ll never reach the day when PPV cards are evenly split between the sexes?
There’s a deep talent pool for each division in the company, and obviously not everyone can get extensive TV time or even deserves to be pushed to the top or upper-middle of the card. But there’s no reason at all that the entire women’s midcard should be relegated to SmackDown and RAW while there are plenty of men’s filler matches slipped onto every PPV show. Even before the brand split last year, the women’s division has been built around a few select women, namely Sahsa Banks, Charlotte, and Bayley (Becky Lynch fell to the wayside very quickly, unfortunately). Since the brand split, others such as Alexa Bliss and Naomi have been given chances to shine and win titles. But the problem is that there hasn’t been a whole hell of a lot of opportunity for the rest of the division. There are occasional flirtations with main event status (as long as we remember that such status for the women falls behind even the men’s midcard status) for some of the others in the division, but they never seem to last.
There are so many great athletes in each brand’s division, and they can’t be said to be anything other than held back. Whatever happened to Emma’s triumphant return? Remember when Natalya’s heel turn seemed like a big deal? What the hell have they been doing with Becky Lynch since she lost the title? And how often do we see them in anything other than watered down, commercial-interrupted television matches? Even if the matches were high-quality things would be different, as they’re all capable of putting on impressive showings, but the visibility and chances for advancement just don’t seem to be existent. We aren’t going to see many serious contenders or plausible storylines until more time is given over to the women’s division. Of course, this is no easy feat with five hours of regular cable television already feeling overstuffed with filler. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for either the athletes themselves, creative, or even the fans to get invested in matters.
But it’s still possible, as the final RAW, SmackDown, and NXT episodes of June revealed. A women’s number one contender gauntlet match headlined RAW, the rematch of the beyond-frustrating women’s MITB match did the same on SmackDown, and Nikki Cross challenged Asuka for the NXT Women’s Championship in a Last Man Standing match on that program’s main event. It was the first time that the women’s division had headlined all three shows in the same week, and of course WWE took every opportunity to announce that fact and gain press attention. Why not just let that become a regular thing and not have to trumpet your own booking? And why wasn’t there more backlash asking why it took so long when it seemed a pretty simple decision to make? Regardless of all that, it was good to see this finally happen, and the matches themselves naturally were no slouches. The NXT title match in particular was one of the best television matches I’ve seen in months, even topping most of the recent PPVs in terms of sheer excitement and quality. So nobody should have any doubt that the women should be presented as stars and performers every bit the equal of the males on the roster, it’s just that the big event feel of this occurrence makes it seem like just an exception to the rule.
That being said, there are some positives to look forward to. First and Foremost is the Mae Young Classic set to air this summer. Pulling talent from a diverse range of indie promotions, similar to last year’s Cruiserweight Classic and this January’s UK Championship Tournament, the all-female event has generated a great deal of buzz already. Given the overwhelming success of those two events, from both critical and artistic perspectives, the MYC looks to be a surefire winner, and at the very least will give a few dozen deserving wrestlers better exposure. Not to continue with the negativity, since I’m really excited for the tournament, have been since it was first mentioned as a possibility last year, but there’s still the issue of exposure. The CWC was one of the best-received programs on the WWE Network last year, and the UK tournament/division have produced some of the company’s best matches of 2017. Despite all of that, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t feel the cruiserweights have been mishandled in the months since. 205 Live is a forgotten B-show, and the in-ring aspect that wowed fans previously has been severely watered down on the main roster. And the UK division is simply a side function of NXT, leaving those great workers even less exposure within their respective division than either SD or RAW’s women’s divisions.
There’s no question that participating in the tournament will boost the stock of nearly every female wrestler who participates in it, but what after that? Will there be a sub-women’s division centered around the trophy/belt or whatever prize is reserved for the victor? Or will the upper-tier participants be inserted into the already-underrepresented women’s divisions on the main roster and NXT? These questions will certainly be answered before long, and it really shouldn’t be anything other than exciting as more details of the tournament emerge. It just seems like we’ll have to wait and see where things go, which is unfortunately what’s been happening all along.
Big Vin Vader covers WWE for Pencilstorm. Follow on twitter @bigvinvader