Monday, June 20, 2016

WWE Money in the Bank 2016: The Return of the Babyface

Well Money in the Bank was nothing if not eventful.  WWE is clearly trying to shake things up following some pretty terrible ratings in recent weeks (Heavily featuring a babyface Champion nobody likes will do that), and last night's PPV felt like a company finally trying to right the ship again.  I wouldn't call it a great show and it was missing at least one Match of the Year candidate, but it was a solid outing built on the backs of three strong main events and a huge, potentially game-changing finish.

WWE's new PPV format is apparently no longer constrained by a three-hour limit, as this show ran about 3.5 and both bouts previously announced for the Pre-show were included.  I have mixed feelings about this development.  On the plus side, this allows more of the roster to be included on the actual PPV and no matches need to be shortchanged.  On the minus, it enables WWE's already sloppy time management and may tend to burn out the crowd both in the arena and at home.  But we'll see how it goes in the long run.

The show opened with a fun 4-Way Tag Title match.  I went into this thinking New Day probably wouldn't escape with their belts, but also knowing none of the challengers were really ready to wear them yet.  This match had some nice fast-paced action and everyone had ample time to do their thing.  There were more than a few awkwardly timed moments however and the inexperience of the two NXT teams was exposed a bit.  Once Michael Cole mentioned New Day's longevity as Tag Champs I figured they'd be retaining, and that's exactly what happened.  Of course he cited Paul London & Brian Kendrick as the longest-reigning WWE Tag Champs, forgetting that Demolition are actually at the top (as World Tag Champions).  But whatever.  The New Day will probably eclipse London & Kendrick.

Next up was hopefully the final match in the Baron Corbin-Dolph Ziggler feud.  I'd call this easily the best of their series.  Ziggler made Corbin look good, and Corbin still needs to put together an actual moveset.  Passable stuff.

Third was the women's tag match, which was pretty forgettable RAW-quality fare.  It was sad to see the Women's division so minimally represented after so many months of growth.  But the aftermath set up a very promising story.  Becky Lynch inadvertently cost her team the match and Natalya got pinned after Charlotte's Natural Selection finisher.  Nattie was sobbing after the loss (Rather an odd touch; it's not like the Title was on the line here), but suddenly leveled Becky with a clothesline.  I like this as a new feud, and what's more it's a secondary Women's feud that doesn't involve the Champion.  So I think we're in store for a bit deeper focus on the women.  That's a good thing.

The other former Pre-show match was next, as Apollo Crews made his WWE PPV debut against Sheamus.  These two had decent chemistry, and aside from a slow first half this was reasonably entertaining.  I'd have preferred a more decisive win for Crews, but once Sheamus dominated so much of the match I figured Crews would pull out a flukish win to set up a rematch.

The first four matches definitively felt like undercard material, but the show picked up with Match 5; a first-time-ever meeting between John Cena and AJ Styles.  Right off the bat the crowd was super hot for this, and it had a big fight feel (AJ seemed to be intensely trying to hold back a beaming smile at the outset).  The story early on was AJ's superior athleticism keeping him one step ahead of Cena.  Aside from a few tentative moments, which I mostly attribute to Cena and Styles' unfamiliarity with each other (plus maybe a bit of Cena ring rust), this match was a lot of fun and took its time to breathe.  Both guys kicked out of each other's finishers and the dramatic near-falls came across well.  One thing I have to mention about Cena - he's become very obvious about calling moves on the fly and it's quite distracting.  I find myself needing to concentrate to tune him out, so he isn't giving away what's about to happen.  For a guy with so much experience he should really be much more discreet.  The finish left a lot to be desired, as Styles won entirely due to Anderson & Gallows' interference.  I'd hoped AJ would then hit the Phenomenal Forearm before getting the win.  But we'll obviously see a rematch at Battleground, and hopefully Styles and Cena will have more thoroughly adjusted to each other's.....styles.  So not a great match but a very good one.

My pick for Match of the Night was (very unexpectedly) the Money in the Bank Ladder Match.  I've talked a lot about how tired I am of multi-man Ladder Matches (and considering how underwhelmed I was by New Japan's first-ever Ladder Match, apparently Ladder Matches in general), but the six guys involved here worked very hard to make this one stand out.  The big spots were creative (Owens got KILLED with a suplex onto a sideways ladder), the Owens-Zayn story was heavily featured, and everyone involved looked like they had a chance to win it.  My only gripe about this match was the final few minutes where they were all fighting on the multi-ladder structure and no one seemed quite sure what to do.  But Dean Ambrose finally grabbing the briefcase was a great moment that the crowd ate right up (More on that shortly).  Really superb example of this type of match, and probably the best in several years.

The US Title took the "death spot" (WWE really needs to do away with the idea of the come-down match; a PPV should build and build to a main event peak, not bring the crowd down in between all the big matches.), and aside from a rather novel opening stretch where all the action took place outside the ring, was pretty dull.  Titus O'Neil never seemed on the verge of actually beating Rusev, and this late in the show the match just felt like a drag.  I did like Rusev telling Titus's kids their father was a loser and then saying "Happy Father's Day!"  Rusev is officially back to his 2014 self, and hopefully this time he'll be better protected once someone does finally dethrone him.

The Roman Reigns-Seth Rollins main event was a loooong time coming.  We were supposed to get it last November but obviously Seth's knee injury derailed it.  But the extra seven months made this feel much more important and well-earned.  Seth was the clear favorite as expected, but since he's still being portrayed as a sorta heel, the crowd's reaction was weaker than it might've been.  What was really refreshing though was Reigns FINALLY beginning to play the character everyone wants him to be.  Reigns worked this entire match as an overconfident heel, dominating Rollins for much of the bout.  As a result the match came off a little slower than I would've liked, and Rollins seemed slightly hesitant at times, understandably so.  But the story was well-constructed and there were excellent false finishes (Rollins countering a spear into a Pedigree was an out-loud "holy shit!" moment for me).  Seth finally did the impossible after hitting a second Pedigree, recapturing the WWE Title clean in the middle of the ring.  And then Ambrose's music hit.

As with the Ladder Match, I've been very burned out on the MITB cash-in concept.  As a rule I find it a cheap, undisciplined way to crown a new Champion, and far too many first-time Champs are winning the Title in this fashion.  But all that was out the window for me last night.  Ambrose cashing in and getting revenge on Seth Rollins after two long years, finally catapulting himself into WWE's top tier felt completely right and well-deserved.  And holy lord did that crowd LOVE this moment.  That my friends is what a top babyface looks like.  WWE's track record at following up these moments may be terrible, but for one night at least they seemed to get that the whole fundamental appeal of pro wrestling is for an audience to relate to their chosen hero and want to accompany him on his journey to the top.  That's it.  WWE can overthink and reframe things all they want, but at the end of the day the fans just want to see their guy prevail.  After two years of Ambrose coming up short in nearly every feud, it was a truly great moment to finally see him get the duke.  Hopefully the company gets this one right.  At any rate our long-awaited Shield triple threat is clearly imminent, hopefully as the main event of SummerSlam.  Interesting bit of trivia; all three Shield members held the WWE Title on the same night.

So while Money in the Bank didn't reach the level of all-time classic show, it was most definitely a strong effort and felt like an historic night.  We'll see how they follow it up, but I'm unusually optimistic at this point.

Best Match: Money in the Bank
Worst Match: Rusev vs. Titus O'Neil
What I'd Change: Nothing major except I'd move the US Title match to much earlier in the night.
Most Disappointing Match: I guess AJ vs. Cena just because it wasn't the ****1/2 bout I expected.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Rollins beating Reigns, and then Ambrose beating Rollins.
Overall Rating: 8/10

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