NXT ArRIVAL 02/27: THIS is wrestling

For all of WWE’s missteps on its flagship show, it sure knows how to put on a great wrestling show whenever it wants.

NXT ArRIVAL needed to be great, and it exceeded expectations with an entertaining six-match card that led off with the Match of the Year and had proper pacing throughout. All the champions had a chance to showcase themselves, some other NXT and main-roster talent was sprinkled in, and Cesaro was Cesaro. WWE sent a few loud, clear messages with this show, and they should pay dividends in the long run:

  • We have a stockpile of talent that is ready for the big time, or almost there. The future is bright with our product.
  • If you like professional wrestling more than “sports entertainment,” we can still give it to you every week with this show.
  • We’re already in Orlando. We’re going to air at 9 p.m. Thursdays on our new network. TNA, take notice.

Even in a tiny arena, this felt like an event with the production and personalities involved. Byron Saxton picked his spots well on commentary, and William Regal takes the product to the next level with WRESTLING analysis. He knows how to put over the talent, tells you what moves you’re seeing (quite important with some of the submission holds), and presents strategy and subtleties that seem minute, but make every single thing in a match matter.

Two matches were filler, and one was immediately interrupted by Alexander Rusev and his ass-kicking ways, which included blatant disregard for Tyler Breeze‘s face. (NOT THE FACE, people!) The other three matches were what professional wrestling is about (click play for each match’s highlights).

SAMI ZAYN vs. CESARO

The main story: This apparently is their fourth meeting on NXT. Zayn is obsessed with demanding Cesaro’s respect.

This match started hot and stayed hot. Even the rest spots told a story and kept the energy high. In one sequence a little under 2 minutes in, we had: Cesaro going for a back body drop but Zayn landing on his feet; a Zayn head-scissors countered into the Cesaro Swing blocked by Zayn and turned into a Cesaro throw attempt that Zayn flips out of and lands on his feet again; Zayn armdrag, Cesaro rolls out, Zayn baseball slide and flip dive. For the next 21 minutes, I was on the edge of my seat. Later on, Zayn goes for an innovative suicide dive from the floor, through the ropes in the corner and to the other side. Zayn was successful getting through the ropes. Cesaro was even more successful with an uppercut on the other side.

After those spots, plenty of mat wrestling. Cesaro’s Wrestling 101 lesson on this night: Work Zayn’s left knee with plenty of leg whips, and maybe a half-crab for good measure. Escape a Koji clutch and wrap the left leg around the shoulders to further torque the knee. Then, when all that doesn’t work, just beat the shit out of Zayn.

But Zayn kept getting back up, kept fighting back. He snaps off a sunset flip powerbomb, but that’s not enough. Finally, Cesaro uncorks a HUGE uppercut and hits the Neutralizer for the win 23 minutes in. Words couldn’t do this match justice. Neither could highlights. This is a match you HAVE to see.

TECHNICAL MERIT: Perfect. ARTISTIC IMPRESSION: That, too. TOTAL SCORE: *****

This is the pure wrestling match I always wanted to see. The Zayn respect angle drove the narrative, and he plays the scrappy babyface in peril perfectly to earn Cesaro’s respect. I actually kind of wanted the comeback victory, but Cesaro’s just too damn good at this point, and it’s better to maintain his momentum. I knew Cesaro would deliver, and in my first exposure to Sami Zayn, I was throughly impressed.

PAIGE (c) vs. EMMA, NXT women’s championship

More of a fight than a match to start, then a hell of a kick to the gut by Paige and a backslide by Emma. Then we were wrestling for the duration.

Seriously, the women in developmental are better than the women on the main roster. WWE wouldn’t allow a match like this on RAW or SmackDown, and frankly, nobody outside A.J. or Natalya could pull it off. Emma proves she’s more than a goofy, pretty face (as she’s portrayed on the main shows) with a long series of submission holds working the champ’s shoulders and arms, then she later counters a superplex attempt with a sunset flip, carries Paige out from the corner and hits a sit-down powerbomb. Excellent display.

This was my introduction to Paige as well, and from how it sounded, THAT was where kicking out of a finisher worked … not just whenever people feel like it, but when you build up a champion for months and have the challenger force the champ back to square one on the biggest show yet. Square one for Paige, however, was a sick-looking submission (Regal informed us it’s the Scorpion Crosslock) that finally made Emma tap.

TECHNICAL MERIT: Great. ARTISTIC IMPRESSION: Good. TOTAL SCORE: ***1/2

Both women can WRESTLE, which gave this match as many who can stake that claim as the entire main Divas roster. If WWE had the patience or ability to put on matches like this, people would care about women’s wrestling. I’ve been the fast-forward type for years, and I was glad Hulu Plus just edited them out for me on RAW, but I want to see these two again. Emma looks great when she has a suitable dance partner (Summer Rae wasn’t the last couple times I watched), and Paige made a great first impression.

BO DALLAS (c) vs. ADRIAN NEVILLE (ladder match), NXT championship

Adrian Neville went out and had a 15-minute match with a ladder. That’s the best way to explain this one. Bo Dallas remains green, bland and force-fed … he’s just not ready yet, hence the return of the go-away heat. Neville will be a star in some form, and he’s clearly the one who made this match.

There was a power spot near the midpoint where he simply pushes the ladder, which held a climbing Dallas, off him. He later avoids a propped-up corner ladder, keeps a grip on the ropes, lands on his feet when Bo pulls him off, then gets a front facelock, uses the ladder for momentum and hits a tornado DDT. In another sequence, he goes to the top, only to be shoved off, bouncing off the apron along the way. Bo goes to climb, then Neville jumps over him onto the ladder and nearly grabs the belt. Finally, of course, there was the Red Arrow on Bo on the ladder. That forces Bo to roll out, and the belt is Neville’s for the first time.

TECHNICAL MERIT: Great. ARTISTIC IMPRESSION: Good. TOTAL SCORE: ***1/2

Neville told the story of the fighting challenger, taking some hard-looking bumps (including a bucklebomb into a ladder), and ultimately came out the winner in the go-home-happy moment. People will remember Neville from this match, as well as the ladders, and probably forget Bo Dallas was even there.

WrestleMania 30: Booked into a corner?

The Road to WrestleMania is bumpy as hell.

The road “starts” at the end of the Royal Rumble, since the winner theoretically makes up half the WrestleMania main event. It actually started a little before 9 p.m. MST at Elimination Chamber — when the WWE World Heavyweight Champion’s hand was raised to set up the other half, and interference during said Chamber match created another — and got rolling with RAW the next night to shape the rest of the card.

Here’s what we have (or likely have) so far:

John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt: Fantastic. We’ll get into this later.

Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker: Needs to happen while it still can. We’ll get into this later, too.

Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H: The logical next step, much to the smarks’ chagrin.

Randy Orton (c) vs. Batista, WWE World Heavyweight Championship: …oops?

A face Batista challenging Orton? The fans hated it. A heel Batista challenging Orton? Could be even worse. See, the “smart” fans are impatient enough to think Bryan should hold every title in WWE, NXT, TNA, ROH and every other alphabet soup promotion in the world by now. OK, maybe that’s a stretch and they just want him to be the top guy in WWE. But there’s a story in play here that makes more sense than Bryan going against the champion: Bryan going against The Authority that has kept him away from the belt in the first place.

Where the smarks are right is the actual feud for the belt sucks, but it’s kind of their doing. Because Bryan wasn’t a surprise entrant and winner of the Rumble, the crowd proceeded to shit all over Rey Mysterio (for being the last man in, instead of Bryan), and Batista (for winning in his first match back). Batista hasn’t necessarily helped matters since, being a bit rusty in the ring and on the mic, and generally unentertaining all around. He was the best heel in the promotion in 2009-10, before he left with a spinal fracture, and WWE will pull the trigger on a heel turn Friday on SmackDown. Maybe that helps one end, but here’s another problem: Randy Orton is TERRIBLE as the good guy. When given something to work with, he’s among the best in the business, but he has been neutered for years as a face and, worse, as a heel since his turn at SummerSlam. Orton’s best as a face was never really good enough anyway (some guys are just better at being bad), but he really won’t be able to save this.

The good news? Smarks love watching what they hate almost as much as (if not more than) what they love. People will hate watch this (read here for The Masked Man’s always worthwhile take), and it will be memorable.

One way to theoretically save this would be adding a stipulation to the Bryan-Trips match, which remains unofficial: Bryan gets a title shot if he wins. From there, Bryan wins the ensuing triple-threat and ends the show standing tall with the belt. Would it make some people happy? Yes. Would it be so predictable and so, so contrived that it takes away from the luster of the actual payoff? YES!

But at this rate, nothing will actually seem good enough for someone touted by some in the pro wrestling bubble as the hottest, most popular wrestler since Steve Austin, except maybe the alphabet soup suggestion above. WWE has booked itself into a corner here, but that’s probably not entirely their fault. One sector of the wrestling community will feel shortchanged no matter what, but that’s entirely their own damn fault. They think only about their own little bubble, not the big picture, and they’re the ones with the booking ideas that would “FIX WRESTLING!!!!!1!” which really are just hotshotting title changes and face/heel turns enough that even The Big Show‘s character seems downright stable. They either don’t remember (or don’t care) that professional wrestling used to move much slower, and it sometimes used to take about a year for a feud to fully blow off, or a babyface to get his payoff. This is a longform story that will reach its conclusion not when a small, though vocal, sector of the fan base wants, but when the story is supposed to end. That could be WrestleMania. It could be SummerSlam. But Daniel Bryan will be champion again.

But then there’s another problem: What allure does Daniel Bryan have when the chase is over? And what will the smarks have to complain about next? 

Pay-per-view review: WWF In Your House 8: Beware of Dog (or some of it)

The premier feature of the WWE Network is the access to its complete pay-per-view library. As often as possible, an old PPV will be selected from random — the method being my wife naming a promotion, year and month. This is (half of) the first in this hopefully recurrent series.

Wife’s selection: WWF, 1996, May

Result: WWF IN YOUR HOUSE 8: BEWARE OF DOG (May 26 & 28, 1996)

This may actually be the perfect PPV to watch as the network gradually solves its video on demand issues, since this event had its own problems. A massive storm caused a power outage during the show, so only two matches made it. The WWF rescheduled the event, called it Beware of Dog 2, and redid the middle portion of the event that Tuesday. This actually is kind of perfect, because buffering issues more or less prevented me from watching past the Sunday matches, which aired first on Tuesday’s show. That’s what you’ll get for now … probably with the second hour two days later. You know, for historical accuracy. *wink*

The setup: This one centers around a love triangle (or an alleged attempt at one) involving Shawn Michaels, The British Bulldog and Diana Smith, Bulldog’s wife (and one of the Hart sisters). Apparently, HBK is a “homewrecker” according to Smith, which means the babyface is the one attempting to lure the heel’s wife into adultery. Or some B.S. *yawn* Oh, and the WWF title is on the line! This was one of those in-between PPVs that doesn’t really move the needle in history — it’s about two months after WrestleMania XII and the Iron Match match between Michaels and Bret Hart, and a month before King of the Ring, when “Austin 3:16 says, ‘I just whipped your ass!'” happened.

Anyway, we start with the typical Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler intro, then Hunter Hearst Helmsley brings his prissy little self down the aisle.

HUNTER HEARST HELMSLEY (w/anonymous valet) vs. MARC MERO (w/Sable)

The story: Sable used to be HHH’s valet, but is no longer. Sounds like he may have kicked her to the curb. Sable’s with Mero now, and HHH attacked Mero on WWF Superstars the day before, taking advantage after Bob Backlund put Mero in the crossface chickenwing. Or something like that.

People are behind the Wild Man here, and he delivers with some nice semi-high-flying maneuvers: A dive onto Helmsley outside, then after returning him to the rin, a leg drop from the apron back in.

Helmsley is young. And skinny. And dead set on repeatedly bashing Mero’s left shoulder into the ring post. Wrestling 101: Work a body part. Also, this was in the era when people cared about punches … an “open fist” had to be used. Helmsley doesn’t care, drawing multiple counts from the ref in the corner.

Pop culture reference to look up: “Sable’s so ugly, even Ted Danson wouldn’t date her!”

Helmsley successfully employs 502 of Chris Jericho’s 1,004 holds at once for at least a minute. (Hint: It’s an ARMBAR!) Now a knee to the arm. Shortly after, a less technical maneuver: A thumb to the eye.

This was kind of a down time for the WWF, but if this match is any sign, the mid-card-type guys are solid. HHH’s future success, earned through merit and/or marriage, is well-documented. Mero always stayed somewhere in the middle, but he can work.

Alberto Del Rio would appreciate Helmsley’s handiwork. He’s been working that left arm for about 10 minutes.

Frankensteiner from Mero, then a flying head-scissors. Later misses a dive, then his left knee goes on the landing.

Adding to the story, HHH apparently won’t hit the Pedigree unless Sable’s looking. “You watch, and I’ll show you what I do to him.” Naturally, this means he’ll lose. In the corner, Mero takes over HHH’s legs, catapults him into the post and pins him.

WINNER: Mero (16:21). 

TECHNICAL MERIT: Above average. ARTISTIC IMPRESSION: Above average. TOTAL SCORE: **1/2

The match told two stories — the one-armed Mero and Helmsley’s attempt to embarrass him and Sable. Good pace and well-executed moves from both, and Mero played the babyface in peril quite well. Match seemed it could go either way until Helmsley’s focus shifted toward Sable.

Backstage: Jim Cornette promises two bombshells to be dropped on Michaels concerning the title match. The first? Owen Hart … sorry … TWO-TIME SLAMMY AWARD WINNER OWEN HART … has “an official South Carolina manager’s license” to be in Bulldog’s corner. Apparently, South Carolina has “a very strict athletic commission.” Wait, so professional wrestling was considered a “sport” in 1996? This segment automatically gets *****. Great managerial work.

Later, we get Shawn with a silly-ass hat talking. Couldn’t take my eyes off the hat, so I didn’t listen. On another note, the Jose Lothario thing didn’t work for me. You get a, shall we say, flamboyant champion, then put him with a manager with no on-screen personality and generic 1996 attire. A juxtaposition that made no sense to me after Lothario trained him for WrestleMania XII.

SHAWN MICHAELS (c) vs. THE BRITISH BULLDOG (w/Owen Hart and Diana Smith): WWF championship match

The second bombshell is Michaels being served a summons as a defendant in a case for “Attempted Alienation of Affection”. This just happened. Apparently HBK didn’t care either, because he’s blowing a bubble in the middle of all this. The bell rings while Michaels has the summons in hand, and he rips it up to Diana’s chagrin, and apparently Davey’s, too, since he jumps HBK to start things off.

Quick pace to start. Bulldog avoids Sweet Chin Music, then when Davey ducks out, Shawn dives on him. Things slow down dramatically from here, starting with the longest headlock in WWF history, non-Orton division. Maybe Davey got blown out in the first minute?

Random side note: This is in HBK’s motocross boot phase. Random side note 2: Lawler’s and McMahon’s back-and-forth is fantastic. In 2014, they can’t get off the TV fast enough. In 1996, they were two of the better personalities in the WWF. These side notes are necessary because this is a rest hold marathon. Nice display of power, lifting HBK as he’s wrapped around Davey’s left arm. Now a back body drop, and probably a rest hold for another 3 minutes? I wasn’t too far off.

Only relevant note over the next 7 minutes or so: This match is SO slow.

And now a slight burst of energy as the patented HBK comeback begins. Davey bumps the ref out of the ring, then HBK super kicks a not-so-sneaky Owen in the corner. Bulldog goes for the powerslam, HBK slips out and goes into a bridge for the pin.

But wait … Mike Chioda declares the win for Bulldog. Then Earl Hebner comes to and raises Michaels’ hand. Chioda raises Bulldog’s hand, while Diana tries to slip out with the belt. Commissioner Gorilla Monsoon comes down the aisle, grabbing the belt along the way, and starts explaining the result to ring announcer Howard Finkel. Meanwhile, a replay shows both men have both shoulders down. You know what that means…

WINNER: None (draw) at 17:21. Of course. 

TECHNICAL MERIT: Bad. ARTISTIC IMPRESSION: Worse. TOTAL SCORE: 1/2*

I’m an HBK mark, but this was a terrible, terrible match. It was slow and boring, with seemingly 3 minutes of action piled into 17. And the peripheral stuff (the love triangle storyline, the ambiguous ending) made it even harder to care, or even sit through. No wonder people were starting to flock to WCW.

At this point, I’m glad the buffering basically prevented me from proceeding. It got bad around the 10-minute mark of the second match and maintained stop-and-go traffic the rest of the way. After an excruciating match, it was a good stopping point. I know it’s early, but hopefully the Network figures this out soon. Or maybe they don’t, fewer people stay on/subscribe, and everything runs smoothly? You’re right … just fix the damn thing already!

RAW 02/24: Runnin’ wild. Brother.

“WELL LET ME TELL YA SOMETHING, BROTHER!”

That was basically all RAW needed to be a good one Monday night. Unfortunately, for about half the Hulu Plus version, that was all it had.

We knew Hulk Hogan was returning, but we weren’t sure when or how. When the Hulkster led off, it marked a good morning. If you know Hogan, you knew what was coming — talk about how awesome it is to be there, bring it back to way in the past, add how whatever’s going on now is the greatest thing ever, some “jack”s, some “dude”s, plenty of “brother”s and a couple catchphrases. It was exactly as predicted, and it worked, besides a somewhat embarrassing botched line in which he confused the WWE Network with the WWE Universe.

It’s all good, though. Dude’s 60, and there wasn’t this whole “Universe” thing when he was last seen runnin’ wild and beating the current WWE champion at SummerSlam 2006. (Wait … so does this mean he’ll get a title shot?) Overall, good to have him back, though I actually kind of liked TNA Hogan better. But I’m probably the only one.

Another expected, but great, comeback came from this guy:

Undertaker

Arrive. Scare Brock Lesnar. Sign a match contract by stabbing Lesnar’s hand. Chokeslam Lesnar through a table. Leave. That’s how it’s done. Also, the “Deadman” gimmick really works now, because The Undertaker looked a little like dead (or close to it). Long as he brings it April 6, he can do and look however he wants.

As for the rest of the show …

• The crowd continues to absolutely shit on Batista, and after Monday’s match and promo, I sort of get it. He has SO much ring rust, and he’s not in good enough shape to avoid being completely blown out. He looked like he hurt Alberto Del Rio two or three different times on high-impact moves, and he may or may not have horribly botched a Del Rio kick attempt. Should he be getting the Dwayne Johnson treatment? Absolutely not. But that’s not his call. Besides, if he’s second in the Royal Rumble, people are cheering him, instead of forgetting they were excited to see him back. But solely because he’s not Daniel Bryan, he’ll be shat upon for at least 6 more weeks.

• I looked something up instead of watching the Christian vs. Sheamus match. Others maybe made a sandwich or took a leak. All better uses of their time. These characters are stale and somewhat irrelevant, and it’s hard to get a crowd pumped for two men like that. You have one? The opponent can help improve the situation. Two? I’m looking up something that happened later in the show.

• It turns out what I looked up occurred in the next segment on Hulu (and the prior one on TV? Weird). John Cena‘s knee injury is a work, though the sell job was fantastic. But once they threw the doctor up on Backstage Pass (a new WWE Network show … read about Day 1 of the Network here) and said Cena refused to get an MRI, it was kind of obvious. I like Cena’s angle — the future having to go through him — and Bray Wyatt is more than willing to oblige. He also outdid Cena on the mic, looking perfectly comfortable being a top heel. “… and we are the reapers that bring death to this era of lies.” Great stuff all around.

• Good to see a full-length match between Kane and Bryan. Kane was a great partner for Bryan, but he’s an even better opponent. He’s vilified enough for Bryan to get the full “YES!” treatment behind him, he’s the rare big man (let alone older big man) who can keep up with the little man, and he’s always known how to sell. Too bad Bryan’s follow-up promo SUCKED. Again. He talked about the entire arena chanting “YES!” Then the camera showed about half the fans doing nothing. Also, he just sounds whiny, which works great for a chicken heel, but not the white-meat babyface cutting white-meat babyface promos straight out of 1986.

• The best exchange of the night may have been during the Emma vs. Summer Rae match, which was far superior to their match that aired on NXT last week, possibly because it was shorter.

SUMMER: “Isn’t (Emma) cute? ISN’T SHE, SANTINO?!”

SANTINO MARELLA: “YES, SHE IS!”

SUMMER: “AREN’T YOU GONNA HELP HER, SANTINO?!”

SANTINO: “If I do, she will be disqualified!”

Simple comedic gold, people.

• The Roman Reigns vs. Wyatt match was good, and one of maybe two on Hulu the fans actually wanted to see. It had Jerry Lawler using the term “wrestling” at multiple junctures. It had good-but-not-great action between two of the best young talents on the show. It even had multiple waves of interference that came across better than predicted. You KNEW Luke Harper and Erick Rowan would show up, but maybe weren’t expecting the Seth Rollins flip dive over the ropes to the floor. Then Crazy Dean Ambrose went crazy and got the DQ. The main issue was it was the “main event” match, which these guys probably weren’t ready for yet, and the crowd was dead by the time it actually happened. Lead off an hour with this, you get a livelier crowd and, in turn, a livelier match.

What I missed on Hulu Plus …

Big E. vs. Cesaro: Want to see, especially with the apparent booking clusterf*ck of the Jack Swagger interruption for the DQ, then Cesaro standing up for him and standing tall after an attempted Big E. attack.

Middle Age Outlaws vs. The Usos: Meh. Quickie match with one good team and another featuring a dude who was washed up in 2000. As The Miz and John Morrison said while taunting DX a few years back, “Are you 50?!” (The washed-up one isn’t. The still-serviceable worker is).

WWE’s greatest day ever? At least its best in a while.

I became a professional wrestling fan at about age 6, often watching Saturday afternoon at Grandma Petrie’s house (she watched NWA/WCW, showing her credentials as a true fan), hunkering down for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/American Gladiators/WWF Superstars trifecta in my basement, and/or demanding the channel be changed to WWF program du jour wherever I was.

The only options in the 1990s were catching wrestling as it broadcasted on TV, or renting old pay-per-views on VHS. When 21-year-old self found DVD box sets at Walmart, I freaked out and bought almost every single one I could, just so I could have all the wrestling I wanted “on demand” by fumbling around for the desirable, putting it into my PlayStation 2 and skipping to the match I wanted to see.

You can only imagine how much I marked out when I saw the WWE Network on Monday morning.

It was wrestling’s biggest day in years — maybe ever if the Network sticks. It launched at 7 a.m. MST, and I’ve never been more excited to see test bars than I was at 6:59. It was interesting to see the bars fade and segue into Vince McMahon‘s welcome statement — first on the iPhone, then the iMac, then the Roku. WWE flexed its video library muscle with 3 hours of original programming right off the bat: WrestleMania Rewind, featuring the WM1 main event of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T vs. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff; WWE Countdown on the 10 best catchphrases of all-time; and This Is NXT, which for many fans was probably the first time they’ve seen anything to do with NXT since the first season, if ever.

So I’m not as much of a trooper as I thought — I needed to go back to sleep about 10 minutes into This Is NXT, which is fine because I know what NXT is. But the first two programs were fantastic. A lot of WM Rewind seemed like recycled DVD stuff packaged into something fresh and new, but it worked. It’s always interesting hearing about how much Piper despised Mr. T for 1) being in the main event without being an actual wrestler, and 2) acting like a main-event guy without being an actual wrestler. That first main event was a spectacle, with Muhammad Ali, Liberace and Billy Martin prominently involved, and “Cowboy” Bob Orton and “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka on the outside, along with just how almost overbooked the match was. Orton provides a distraction or two. Snuka gets in the ring. Ali’s in there a couple times. Piper and Orndorff walk out. All the while, Pat Patterson basically plays a ref in peril, unable to fully control what’s going on. But hey, he was there for the 3 count. (Not to be confused with 3 Count, which you can now see on demand…go to New Blood Rising 2000 in the pay-per-view section).

Countdown was good, though I’m not sure exactly how “Macho Man” Randy Savage wasn’t involved. Some redemption, however, with Ric Flair‘s “WOOOOOOOOOOOO!” at No. 1, just above Daniel Bryan‘s “YES!” Oldest ride, longest line, jack.

I watched those, then caught about 40 minutes of the 1989 Great American Bash on demand before the buffering was just too much to take. Later, during the “live” programming of WM1, I caught the infamous King Kong Bundy vs. S.D. Jones squash match, which disappointingly didn’t end with Bundy’s advertised 5 count. After work, it was time for RAW Backstage Pass, which was refreshing in so many ways.

Wrestling pre-shows I can take or leave, and skepticism preceded the post-show because, well, TNA Reaction kind of sucked. But this was just right — 20 or so minutes of analysis and reaction that made professional wrestling feel like a sport. It’s a great way to use Renee Young, even though the heels didn’t have much (or anything) to say, and with Booker T, Flair, Josh Mathews and Alex Riley, it was a nice mix of personalities and experience like you would see in a sports studio show. Plus, hopefully, it means there’s more wrestling instead of promos on RAW itself in the future.

Everybody’s complaints seemed to be about buffering or crashing, and it basically happened to everyone watching at some point Monday. There certainly are kinks to work out (more items show up and work better on some platforms than others), but the initial presentation is a true fan’s dream. It’s almost too much to handle, but it truly will be a treat to further establish knowledge of the past while watching the present and looking into the future of professional wrestling.

Read more about Monday’s RAW here.

Believe in who you want. Follow who you want. Just watch and enjoy.

WWE has quality wrestlers and decent characters, but the problem is the company seems to zero in on the main feud and call it good on the creative end. If you’re not in the main event, you don’t really have anything compelling to do. Just go out, have a match, maybe hold a belt as a prop, and do the same thing again next week like this week never happened.

There are some subtleties in the product that have improved recently. As The Masked Man pointed out this week on Grantland, the Prime Time Players’ breakup and pending blowoff match at Sunday’s Elimination Chamber is the culmination of a simple, throwback style of feud — an actual tag team breakup where the heel feels like the face has held him down, and it has had time to develop into something meaningful. If Titus O’Neil and Darren Young get buried after this, it may not mean a thing. If they’re elevated, this will be the genesis of two sorely needed fresh faces.

The best, most anticipated match Sunday won’t have two men. It’ll have six. And it’s not the one with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship on the line.

The Shield were called up in late 2012 and immediately started running roughshod over anyone who stood in their path. They’ve been worthy of main-event time as a group, and Roman Reigns appears to have the blessing of creative to be a main-event individual sooner than later. The Wyatt Family joined the fray last year, bringing an interesting, creepy brand of psychological warfare in the form of a mini-cult led by Bray Wyatt, the most original character WWE has developed in about a generation.

They’ve existed in somewhat alternate universes, rarely, if ever, crossing paths. The seeds were planted in November, when the factions briefly squared off, but it was only a taste.

Well, since the Royal Rumble, their paths have met often, and it’s been absolutely fantastic. Great promo work by both sides, and the classic “create tension to a breaking point, then pull it back” buildup. Last week, after about 2-3 minutes of inching toward each other, The Shield entered the ring and The Wyatts teased it, only for Bray to back off the apron and exit up the ramp. This week on RAW, all six men were in the ring, only for Bray to back off yet again. Then, at the end of the show, they finally threw down (jump to about 2:20 for the full chaotic scene).

The cult and its leader

Wyatt Family

Bray is the unquestioned leader of The Wyatt Family, and it works in a way it shouldn’t. Luke Harper and Erick Rowan are Wyatt’s followers, and they’re almost too subtle in what they do. Well, maybe except for Rowan’s sheep mask. They don’t seem important, but they 1) do plenty of in-ring work, enough where it feels like a big deal when Wyatt gets in, and 2) add legitimacy to Wyatt and make the group feel like an upper-midcard act. All three are big men, which seems monotonous, but they have great teamwork and they just keep attacking the opponents into submission. (Not literal. Bray pins them.)

With Bray’s cryptic, psychotic mic work, whatever angle the family is in feels like more than wrestling. Case in point: “Are you willing to die for this? Because if you’re not, you’ve already lost.”

The collective juggernaut

Who cares what cutesy nicknames Michael Cole has for this group. Dean Ambrose, Reigns and Seth Rollins are three great wrestlers with the looks and charisma to match. Ambrose was the de facto leader for most of The Shield’s run — and, in the process, he’s been WWE’s longest reigning active male champion, holding the United States Championship since June. Reigns has become the figurehead at least since the Royal Rumble, when he set a record for eliminating 12 of the other 29 competitors, including his teammates. But, in theory, they’re equals, a point Rollins is there to solidify.

You just don’t see stables stay together (or even form) anymore, which makes The Shield’s run so refreshing. They’ve also been booked strong and respond accordingly, making this group far better than The Nexus (which even C.M. Punk couldn’t save) and its sad-ass spinoff, The Corre. Their chemistry is superb, and even with the bits of infighting, which will result in a long-awaited, probably-due-by-now blowoff, that chemistry shines through.

One question is whether Rollins can keep Ambrose’s and Reigns’ game of one-upmanship from breaking the team apart during this match.  Another is whether The Wyatts collectively are at the level where they can beat The Shield in a wrestling match. Is a clear leader a good thing, or is the more talented team the favorite? Still another is whether this one-month buildup is all there will be, or a teaser for WrestleMania, or something that will intertwine these six men for years to come.

Common sense dictates The Wyatts winning due to The Shield falling apart as a unit, elevating The Wyatts into the upper echelon as the heel group du jour and setting up an epic Ambrose/Reigns rivalry, with Rollins stuck in the middle. Then again, The Shield could hold it together to defeat the common enemy, like they have for several weeks.

For once in WWE, it seems like anything can happen. And I can’t wait to see it.

NXT 02/19: The good, the bad … and the Bo Dallas

The last time I watched NXT, I was more fixated on the characters (and what Kofi Kingston was or wasn’t doing effectively) than the actual in- on near-the-ring product. Either that was for the best, or Wednesday’s episode was just … off.

Sure, there were some quality moments. But there also were plenty of reminders that this is a developmental show, and maybe one or two that some people in professional wrestling just don’t develop.

Good: Squash match!

I kind of forgot NXT actually has a tag-team championship, before quickly remembering The Prime Time Players carry them in my WWE 2K14 Universe mode. (And Big E. is my NXT champ.) Anyway, the real-life title holders, The Ascension, had a glorified handicap match against some generic dude with green trunks and his partner, whom he sent to the floor when the skinny Ascension dude threw him not into the ring post, but into said partner. Luckily, the poor sap in the ring (who seemed more talented and in shape than Ryback‘s squashees back when that whole force-feeding was a thing) knows how to take a bump, because there were a couple. Also, the traditional high-low (one guy undercuts you, the other knocks you over) is now called The Fall of Man. Cool, I guess. Anyway, I miss squash matches, hence the “Good” rating.

The bad: Developmental Divas

Summer Rae vs. Emma was an interesting match on paper, since I’d never seen either compete.

I wish I hadn’t.

Both, I’m sure, work hard, and they have the Diva-esque look that’ll get them onto the full-time main roster sooner than later. But they both have SO much to learn in the ring. Everything was disjointed and clunky. Kinda-sorta knock someone down, cover. Person kicks out, gets up and covers the other because they’re still on the ground. This, somehow, yields a 2-1/2 count. It was just poor, poor wrestling.

THEN THEY GAVE THE MATCH TWO SEGMENTS.

PWTorch timed it at 7:15, but it felt like forever. Business picked up in the last minute or so, when Emma showed us actual wrestling moves — the Tarantula (or the Dil-Emma, in this case) in the ropes, and the Emma Lock (or the Muta Lock … the description does it justice) — Sasha Banks took an apron bump that made it look like she ate the ramp. It was better than any of Summer’s work during the match.

The verdict: Emma can wrestle, and Summer can look pretty on Fandango‘s arm.

Meh: Sami Zayn vs. Cesaro promo

The presentation was unique, with Zayn and Cesaro in close quarters and interviewer Renee Young between them. But it felt like something was missing. There was a basic back-and-forth — Renee asks question, Zayn starts to answer, Cesaro interrupts — but it was whatever. Maybe I need some back story, or maybe I should watch some prior matches, but I wasn’t completely sold into this being a big deal. I’m sure it’ll be a hell of a match, though, since Cesaro looked great against Randy Orton last Friday, then had the WWE’s early candidate for Match of the Year against John Cena on Monday.

Bad: Elimination Chamber promos

I didn’t keep track, but it felt like going into and coming out of every commercial break. We get it, WWE. The chamber is dangerous and cool, and anyone can win. Well, except Christian, Sheamus, Cesaro and, in this case, Daniel Bryan (to save him for Triple H).

On the bright side, the Elimination Chamber at least yielded the opportunity for Edge to drop one title and steal the other in the same night by destroying Kingston, forcing his way into the match and winning.

Good: Adrian Neville

I’m not sure someone like Neville would be looked at as more than an Evan Bourne type on the main roster considering his size (billed at 5-foot-10, 194 pounds), but the man can go. Great dive onto the outside on Tyler Breeze. Hurricanrana counter into a vicious sit-down powerbomb. And, of course, The Red Arrow.

Neville Red Arrow

Neville makes me miss WCW. Throw him into the cruiserweight division back in the day with Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Billy Kidman, Chris Benoit, Rey Mysterio … the possibilities would’ve been endless on Nitro. *simulates pouring out a little liquor*

GOOD: Tyler F-ing Breeze

Some characters are good. Some are bad. Some are really, REALLY bad.

Mantaur

Then some just have … “it”. Tyler Breeze has “it”.

Male model characters automatically are annoying, chickenshit heels with an overinflated sense of self-image, especially concerning the face. Tyler Breeze cringed when putting 2 and 2 together and realizing Neville could win the NXT title at ArRival next week and become … the f … the f … the f-fa … the fa … the face of NXT. Because, let’s face it: Neville is an “uggo,” according to Breeze, whose Twitter handle is @MmmGorgeous.

He was especially vocal (and especially intense) during an 8-minute-or-so main event with Neville that felt more focused and connected than the match I saw last month:

• To the ref after a corner attack: “DON’T TOUCH ME!”

• To Neville after sustaining damage and regaining control: “YOU DON’T DO THAT TO ME! I’M GORGEOUS!” That was immediately followed by the first mid-match selfie I remember witnessing.

The character may be almost all that’s there at the moment, but Breeze appears to be gaining some momentum as the pretty-boy chicken heel who can inflict some pain when pushed to a certain point. And it’s just so much fun to watch.

Bo Dallas: Bo Dallas

You know what’s NOT fun to watch? Bo Dallas. Apparently, the NXT fans are sick of him, too, because a BATHROOM BREAK TIME sign went up immediately as he stepped onto stage. That, Orlando, Florida, is your champion.

It’s just amazing (and sad) how one brother (Bray Wyatt) can have so much charisma and be so dialed in that he’s the best true character in WWE this millennium … then the other gets change-the-channel heat. “NO MORE BO!” was a chant early on. “BO-RING!” soon followed. In the midst of it, Dallas cut a terrible promo in a bumbling, high-pitched squeal. I would say he’s the worst champion on a show since The Great Khali, but Khali has charisma. The same goes for David Arquette, who probably was more deserving of his gold.

Luckily for Bo Dallas, he’s only 23. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll get it by the time he’s 33. He could drop the NXT strap to Neville and disappear, and I don’t think the fans would even miss him.

That, Orlando, Florida, is your champion. For now.