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Reboot to the Face

WWE divides and expands and enters a new era

WWE/Ringer Illustration
WWE/Ringer Illustration

During the third hour of Monday’s WWE Raw, Braun Strowman’s new theme music blasted into the arena like an explosion ripping through a Gwar concert, and the 6-foot-8, 385-pound golem marched to the ring. There awaiting him was a sunken-chested nobody named James Ellsworth, who might have had an honest shot against Strowman’s left leg. We rarely see old-fashioned squash matches these days, but as WWE keeps touting, this is a new era. Announcer Byron Saxton was in the ring to ask Ellsworth the question that fans have been sarcastically wondering about jobbers since the dawn of the pro wrestling trade: "What in God’s name are you thinking?"

Visibly trembling, Ellsworth responded, "Yes I’m nervous, yes I’m scared, but if I can somehow, some way, pull off the upset, I truly believe any man with two hands has a fighting chance. I can only imagine what that may do for my career."

I could sympathize. On Sunday I woke up with the knowledge that I was in for about eight and a half hours of live, must-watch WWE television over the next three days, and if history was any indicator, it wasn’t going to be an easy jaunt. Sunday was Battleground, a second-tier pay-per-view made accidentally significant; Monday was Raw, in all three hours of its glory; and Tuesday was Smackdown Live, the new iteration of its usually pretaped secondary show. Last week, WWE split its roster between Raw and Smackdown, making a formal distinction between them to try to draw viewers to both and potentially re-create some of the magic of the Monday-Night Wars, when WWE (then the WWF) faced direct competition from rival WCW and ratings soared. The company had me hooked, obviously, but it remained to be seen whether the three-day marathon would be the joyous dawn of a new era or a 500-minute iron-man match, leaving all involved bloodied and beaten, to be repeated every month (or more). This is the new normal.

Strowman destroyed Ellsworth, but that wasn’t all bad. It was Strowman’s fresh start as a singles competitor after a stint as a bouncer in the Wyatt Family. But more importantly, Ellsworth marked the return of the jobber, the ham-and-egger, the enhancement talent that made the early days of the WWF so magical. Ellsworth has since become a minor internet celebrity. But the love is about more than his scrawny, awkward magnificence. It’s about WWE revisiting old tropes and introducing new ones. It’s about a fresh start.

On Sunday, Battleground didn’t feature any title changes, and it didn’t have a single defining, holy-shit moment. But there were signs of hope. The show opened with a tag-team match featuring Women’s Champ Charlotte and Dana Brooke vs. Sasha Banks and her surprise partner, Bayley. The crowd went nuts for Bayley — who was making her first appearance on the main roster — which was a small thing, sure, but it showed that WWE had the confidence in her to get the crowd going based on her critically acclaimed run in NXT and nothing else. It also showed that WWE has the confidence in the women to open the show. In retrospect, it was an unsubtle metaphor for what was to come over the three nights of action.

The highlight of the show was the grudge match between Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, two up-and-comers who have been brawling for the better part of a decade, from the indies to the major leagues. Even though this match was billed as the final bout in the feud, when both were drafted to Raw last week, Zayn shook his head and half-chuckled at how they’re destined to be bound together forever. Ironically, that’s exactly what fans want. As Ringer editor Sean Fennessey texted me after the match, "Zayn-Owens should be forced to wrestle each other at every PPV forever."

The main event featured the three former members of the Shield — Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns — facing off for Ambrose’s WWE Championship. The match would determine not just the new champ but which show, Raw (where Rollins and Reigns were drafted) or Smackdown (Ambrose), would inherit the belt. It was a borderline-epic match, drawing power from the combination of Rollins’s kinetic ring presence, Ambrose’s supernova of charisma, and the antimatter of Reigns’s near-universal loathedness. But the most shocking aspect was its straightforwardness: Ambrose won, cleanly. There was no interference by the phalanx of commissioners and general managers at ringside, there was no referee malfeasance, there was no split decision necessitating a rematch or co-championship. Ambrose won — that’s all that happened, and it was great.

The next night on Raw is when the real excitement happened. Sasha Banks defeated Charlotte to claim the Women’s Championship, and Finn Bálor — in his first night on Raw after being drafted up from NXT last week — won the right to face Seth Rollins for the new Universal Championship at SummerSlam by winning a four-way match and then a second match against Reigns. Bálor spent years on the indie and international scenes before making his way to WWE, but he’s not roster slush like some of his peers, and the only comparisons for his upside at this stage are names like Cena, Orton, and Lesnar. It seemed predestined that Reigns would win the shot, another soggy contrivance in his never-ending march to the title. But just like at Battleground, Reigns was more of a cog than a contender. Reigns is fresh off a 30-day suspension for violating the Wellness Policy, and though some have complained that he walked back into his main-event spot, WWE is actually doing one better than demoting him: They’re nudging him out of the spotlight while using him as a signifier of importance. Many have called Reigns the new John Cena, and this week, Reigns played an arch version of Cena’s most central role — he made your favorite wrestlers matter, because you thought he was going to squash them.

The near-universal assumption was similar for Charlotte: She would defeat Sasha, keeping Banks’s underdog story percolating. Judging by traditional rules, the timing of Sasha’s win seemed a little off — why not do it the night before at Battleground, or next month at SummerSlam? But the traditional rules are out the window. As much as it was a defining moment in Sasha’s career, it was a coronation for a new era of WWE. By the time Bálor won to end the show, it felt less like a reboot and more like a complete takeover.

Smackdown opened with commissioner Shane McMahon and GM Daniel Bryan backstage — when they walked into the arena, live on camera for the first time, the crowd erupted. (On Raw, they opened with the announce crew in their new digs midway up into the crowd, looking every bit like real sports commentators.) There were a lot of little tweaks throughout the week that differentiated the shows from each other and (more importantly) the previous status quo — the jobbers, new announce teams, ringside interviews, cool camera shots, a conspicuous dial-back in spray tan, and new show logos. Those are small things, but in combination it felt like an epochal shift.

Of course, without substance to back it up, it would have been all noise without any signal. But then Smackdown announced its own match to choose a no. 1 contender for Ambrose’s title, and Apollo Crews — another high-upside indie talent recently brought up to the main roster — was announced as one of the six men in the match. With Bálor and Banks and Crews and even Ambrose’s win on Sunday, the noise had grown loud. And just as fans were preparing themselves for a perfectly fine Ambrose vs. AJ Styles title feud, WWE flipped the script again. Shockingly, Dolph Ziggler won the match, and will be co-headlining SummerSlam.

Ziggler is the perfect choice for the spot, both in terms of talent and in what he represents. Much as Shane McMahon had become the demigod of the Reform Raw movement, like a former president in exile, Ziggler has over the years become the overselling avatar of the disgruntled fan. He’s a fan favorite always a step away from the championship; after a title run in 2013 ended abruptly with worries about concussion issues, he never reentered the title scene. The wrestling internet since then has been roughly 45 percent dedicated to rumors about why WWE management doesn’t see him as a top guy. The most plausible reason is that he’s too good at making other people look good in the ring, and his destiny is to be a "mechanic," an upper-tier enhancement talent — James Ellsworth with a whiff of legitimacy. Of all the sins committed by WWE over the past 10 years, this has felt like a significant one — penalizing someone for being too good at helping his opponents instead of rewarding him for it. On Tuesday night, he got his reward.

By the end of the three-day iron-man match of WWE shows, the changes made so much sense that it felt like the only explanation was that they were a companywide mistake — "the new error," as Heath Slater slurred it on Tuesday. But we should have seen it coming. All of the young talent that went over on Monday and Tuesday was predicted on Sunday night. It was arguably the evening’s high point, and it wasn’t even a match: It was Enzo Amore’s in-ring promo before he and Big Cass teamed up with John Cena against AJ Styles and the Club.

Pro wrestling is about talking as much as it is about fake fighting — that’s a given. But rarely do we see wrestlers who transcend as talkers the way that, say, Finn Bálor transcends in the ring. We all knew Enzo had the mic skills, but since his debut on Raw, he’s been reciting the same catchphrases over and over again to the point of insanity, and he seemed destined to be the Road Dogg 2.0 — a serviceable, smart-mouthed merch mover. On Sunday night, WWE switched gears and gave him the chance to shine.

There hasn’t been a wrestler who could hold the crowd’s attention like that in a promo that long since the Rock, and there hasn’t been one who could tell a story while doing so since — hell, Ric Flair? Dave Meltzer, who should know, called him "another Roddy Piper." And as Enzo was putting on a five-star performance without ever locking up, there in the background was John Cena, grinning wildly.

There were some people who grumbled that Enzo and Cass were being used as tools to make Cena relevant, or conversely, that they were being repackaged into Cena-style anodyne heroes. After Enzo’s promo, there should be no doubt that they’re something else entirely. If you need evidence, look at Cena’s face as the crowd cheers unanimously for the little guy with the crazy hair. If there’s one thing everyone can agree on about Cena, it’s that he loves the wrestling business. And there he was, rooting right along with the crowd, ecstatic at every word Enzo spoke, smiling and applauding as he watched the business move past him.

It must have been a relief. I know it was for me.