A Penny For Your Thoughts Wrestlemania Countdown Mania Day; Where We Need To Go From Here

So today’s the day, and most of us have mixed feelings at best towards the card that awaits us. Raw’s ratings keep slipping while Smackdown’s are ever so slowly climbing, but the booking for both brands’ matches are all over the place. Smackdown’s booking is a lot better, but not perfect. Overall, this stands to be one of the weakest Manias in, well, ever. So for the last proper countdown column this year, (tomorrow’s is a bonus), I’m going to give the entire card my personal run-down. I’m not going to predict winners here. I already chipped in on the Roundtable for that. No, here I’m going to dissect each match, explain its pros and cons, explain how I personally think it SHOULD be book regardless of how I EXPECT it to be booked, and wrap up with where I think they need to take things to bounce back from their creative slump and shitty booking.

So let’s begin shall we?

PRE-SHOW MATCHES

The Andre Memorial Battle Royal

This might be one of the few matches they really can’t screw up. You don’t really need a lot of build-up for a battle royal. Guys on both brands have thrown their hats into the match and a few multi-man tags have happened, but it’s a simple self-explanitory concept that has generally been done pretty well since it began 4 years ago. Twenty guys all get in the ring, the winner is the last man not thrown out, and that guy either gets a decent push, or at the very least an accolade he can drop into his promos. While Cesaro was unable to really capitalize on his win in the inaugral one, (thanks to Vince not getting his appeal), and Big Show honestly didn’t need the rub at all, last year’s winner Baron Corbin has managed to have a pretty decent first year post-NXT because of it. He got to be in the Elimination Chamber title match, and is in a title match today with Ambrose, who might be able to finally teach the dead weight a few sorely needed lessons on how to actually bloody work properly.

So with this one, given that all signs point to Braun Strowman getting the duke here, I actually have no real gripes about the booking here. Strowman can use the win to both cement his monster heel status and to get back any heat some fans feel he lost by jobbing to Roman despite him having spent that entire Fastlane match absolutely owning Roman and only losing because he made a stupid mistake, which in my opinion means even jobbing he came out of that match looking super dominant.

Neville Vs Austin Aeries For The Cruiserweight Title

This is another one that I think has actually been booked really well. Neville has been absolutely on fire since coming back as an angry justified heel, running roughshod over the division, getting more eyes on it, helping boost 205 Live’s viewership a bit, and having 5 star matches every week to draw the crowd in while cutting the best promos of his life. Meanwhile, the slow build of tension between him and Aeries over the weeks while Aeries was still an announcer until cleared from injury, getting bigger pops at the damned announce desk than half the guys in the ring, until finally Neville’s condescending dismissal of the prospect of Aeries challenging him pushes Aeries into attacking Neville and returning to active ring duty, then winning a shot at the belt? It was all textbook big match build-up. The booking here has been nigh flawless and has probably helped save the struggling division from an early demise. I fully expect these two to bust their asses to steal the show tonight. My only real gripe is having it on the pre-show.

Despite the bullshit JBL tried to sell us Thursday on Network Exclusive show Bring It To The Table about why being on the preshow should be coveted, pre-show means you’re not important enough for an actual PPV. To the casual fan if they put your match on free tv you aren’t big enough to care about. Treating this match like a warm-up curtain jerker is an insult to these two men. But I still expect them to rise above that and steal the show.

As for how I’D book it? Neville wins to keep drawing eyes to the division, but via shenanigans of some kind so Aeries will be owed a fair rematch. They continue their attention grabbing feuds with fans caring more and more because they want to see Neville dethroned, and the division starts to really thrive.

PROPER PPV MANIA CARD MATCHES

Triple Threat Raw Tag Titles Ladder Match

The booking for this one has been all over the place. The champions keep being made to look weak, they can’t seem to decide which face team they really want the audience to root for, and the Ladder match stipulation seemed desperately tacked on, as if someone realized they didn’t have a ladder match and figured the fans might revolt if they didn’t correct that. If only they were as concerned about what other things might cause a fan revolt.

*cough*

*cough

The fans are goiong to want a real feel-good moment on the show, and this is one of two, maybe three matches with the potential to offer one. So for this match I’d pull  Zack Ryder and have Enzo & Cass get the win here to give the crowd the warm fuzzies, then have them drop it tomorrow night to either of the other teams via shenanigans to keep them as underdogs on the title chase, because while I do think the boys from NXT need to WIN the titles, they don’t need to actually KEEP them. They’re already insanely over huge, and don’t need belts to add to that. And they work best as the underdogs chasing the dream. Let them live the dream for one night, and be sent back to chasing it tomorrow.

Smackdown Womens Title Clusterfuck

Except for this, the Smackdown Womens Division booking has left Raw’s completely in the dust. Where Raw seems to be stuck in a rut of the same three women over and over with a few others occasionaly thrown in the mix as props, EVERY woman on Smackdown gets a turn on tv. Their characters are better developed and the match-ups rotate enough that it never gets stale. However, Naomi’s injury threw a spanner in the works. The original plan was a singles match with Alexa Bliss and Naomi so Naomi could have a feel-good win in her hometown to pop the crowd energy. Then she was told her injury might keep her out of Mania and the Smackdown showrunners decided to err on the side of caution and strip her of the belt just in case she wasn’t cleared in time. But because there was hope she still COULD get medical clearance just in time, they decided the best option was this weird “every available woman” clusterfuck so that Naomi could easily be slipped back in at the last minute without needing the build-up they otherwise would have done.

This match was going to join the Andre Battle Royal and the Cruiserweights on the pre-show until fans outright revolted at the idea. They barraged the ‘E on social media like never before and somehow actually got listened to. Now if the Raw womens’ match had been put on the Pre-Show, I honestly don’t think anyone would really have protested much, which is both an indictment of the shitty Raw booking and a testament to the superior Smackdown booking. It still leaves us with a weird clusterfuck of a match they haven’t really explained yet, (is it a beat the clock thing? An elimination? A Fatal ?-way?). Still, unlike the Raw match, the fans have been given reasons to care here, and reasons to root for any of the women involved. My booking? The crowd popped like a mother when Naomi won the belt to begin with, and were upset when she was stripped. So given that Noami is expected to go over here, I wouldn’t change much. Sadly at this point, barring possibly one more specific match, this will likely be the last match whose booking I don’t disagree with.

Ambrose Vs Corbin for the IC Belt

The booking for this match has actually been pretty solid, if abnormally violent for the PG era and a bit uncomfortable to watch. Par for the course, as pretty much every Smackdown match has been booked pretty well over Raw’s almost universally insipid booking. But my problem with this match isn’t the build-up booking, it’s the likely booking of the match itself.

All signs seem to point to Corbin winning and walking away with the belt. And this is so completely wrong. Corbin has gotten a monster push he really hasn’t earned because he’s a creator’s pet like Cena or Roman. He was over huge at first in NXT when he didn’t talk and just squashed people while the crowd timed the match. Then he got booked into a feud with former employee Bull Dempsey where he had to work matches longer than a Goldberg schedule, and instantly the NXT smarks turned n him because all his weaknesses were suddenly immediately glaring.

The man can barely wrestle at all. His workrate is weak and lazy. His selling is awkward and mistimed if he sells at all. He sounds monotonous and boring when he talks and instead of sounding like a bragging bully he sounds like a disinterested fill-in voice actor reading the script as a placeholder until the real actor gets into the studio. His matches are bad even when paired with guys who are expected to carry him like Ziggler, and his promos are utterly incapable of making you care about him either way.

But he’s the clear pick to win and that’s a bad idea, because the added pressure of carrying arguably the true #2 belt in the entire company in the fans’ eyes will only further put a spotlight on his shortcomings. So I’d have Ambrose, after carrying him to as best a match as he can, beat Corbin so that Corbin can keep learning and hopefully improving at least a little.

Jericho Vs Owens for the US Title

Not much to say here. This is the only Raw match besides the Cruiserweight match that’s been booked right. The long build-up between best friends and their eventual predicted yet still beautifully done break-up has been pretty much perfect, which is to be expected when Jericho is involved. Odds are they’ll have a show stealing match and KO will go over, and that’s exactly as it should be.

Raw Womens’ Title Fatal Four-Way

I’ve already touched on the failings of Raw’s Women’s Division above in the Smackdown Women’s entry, so let me just hit a few quick bullet points here.

  1. Charlotte shouldn’t be in this match. The crowd is tired of seeing her in every damned PPV Title match. Give her a rest already.
  2. Nia Jax has no business in this match either. She’s an impressive monster heel but she is NOWHERE NEAR ready for the pressures of a Mania level ppv match.
  3. Charlotte and Nia should be having a singles match on the Pre-Show.
  4. This match should be, full stop hands down, Sasha/Bayley III. They should be the only two in this match at all, and Sasha should be the heel. Their two NXT matches were solid gold.

As a fatal four way with one competitor the fans are burnt out on and one who isn’t ready for this level, this will, at best, be an okay to decent match. If it were JUST Sasha and Bayley, it would be a Match of the Night contender, and knowing what these two can do together in that ring, a likely Match of the YEAR contender. That’s how I’d have booked this. And it’s sad that this opportunity has been missed because of Raw Creative’s completely lack of any idea how to properly use the women’s roster they have.

Shane MacMahon Vs AJ Styles

I don’t think this match has been built up as well as it could have been. It really kinda feels like they waited until the last minute to book this and start the build-up to it. Well, that’s because they did. As it turns out, we learned on Sam Roberts’ podcast this past week that the original plan was to have Shawn Micheals come out of retirement to face AJ, but Shawn decided he was fine with being retired and wishes AJ had been in the ‘E ten years ago. So the long gestating rumours that it’d be Shane and AJ ended up becoming plan B. So the build-up has felt very rushed and is probably the least well booked Smackdown Mania match. Which doesn’t mean it can’t be good. And in all honesty it probably will be. Shane never half-asses anything he does when he steps in the ring and AJ can get 5 Star matches out of damn near anyone.

But MY booking? This match never happens, and AJ is in a triple threat with Orton and Wyatt.

Seth Vs Tripsy UNSACTIONEDZOMG!!!!!111!!!!!eleven!!!

Conversely, where the build-up for the previous match has been very last minute and rushed, and ended up feeling forced, the build-up here has taken bloody forever and pissed away all sense of urgency. They’ve had to openly insult the audiences’s intelligence to build this one, because even the casual marks know that Tripsy is backstage at every Raw because he’s the goddamned COO. So they expected us to believe that Seth was EVER so fucking angry at Tripsy but wouldn’t just run backstage and pummel him in Gorilla. You know, like AJ Styles tried to do to Shane 3 weeks ago until Road Dog and Micheal Hayes interfered. Funny how that works. Smackdown’s bookers know we’re not idiots. So when AJ was pissed at Shane he went to the goddamn Gorilla position looking for Shane. Meanwhile Seth waits until NXT Takeover on Rumble Wekkend, a full near 5 months after Tripsy cost him the fire engine belt, to suddenly start calling him out?

You can’t build up a Mania match as being one guy super pissed at his boss over the course of 7 months and only have them interact 5 or 6 times, while having your face walking around with the idiot ball practically glued to his hands. And after all that mostly non-existent build we were expected to be salivating over, Seth reinjured his knee and it was unclear if he could even work Mania now at all. So of course that’s when Tripsy picks up the idiot ball and decides that NOW he should start showing up on tv every week to cut down his potentially non-viable opponent. The entire build-up to this has been insulting and brain-hurtingly stupid. How would I change it? The MOMENT it was made clear that Seth’s chances of being cleared for Mania were bleak, I’d have switched gears and had Tripsy go after Joe for hurting SEth, opening the company up to lawsuits, and Joe not appreciating being shat on for doing exactly what Tripsy wanted. Joe turns face, and we have an actually viable and entertaining match at Mania, instead of one a lot of us are going to watch very uncomfortably fearing something goes horribly wrong and Seth doesn’t walk out of the building because he’s not ready and a move goes wrong and completely borks his knee altogether.

Ken & Barbie… er… I mean Cena & Nikki Vs Miz & Maryse

So I’ll save some time for us all here and just link you back to Day 5 of the Countdown, wherin I covered why this match was a stupid idea that even Vince’s own people told him was a shit idea, and why this has ended up being one of the most anticipated matches on the entire card almost exclusively thanks to the Miz doing the best promo work of his entire life. Go read it if you haven’t. I’ll wait.

All done? Okay, let’s get back to it.

If you didn’t read it the Cliff’s Notes version goes thusly; Miz has been cutting absolutely incredible promos laced with a good chunk of reality that have been both uncomfortable and yet deeply engaging because most of the audience knows at least some of i is true and even the smarkest of smarks are wonderng exactly how much of his worked shoots are worked and how much is a shoot, and that Miz’ promo work has singlehandedly made us WANT to see this trainwreck, in spite of Cena’s paint by numbers “You’re shit and I’ma roll right over you” bullshit, and if this storyline were on ANY medium besides pro wrestling, Miz and Maryse would be the clear faces.

So since I posted Day 5 about this match, I’ve since learned from some non-WWE podcasts that the heat between the couples is actually legit. Much like HBK and Bret Hart legit couldn’t stand each other backstage, John and Mike are not even close to being friends, mostly avoiding each other backstage and struggling to be civil when they interact. Maryse’s story about Nikki stabbing her in the back and costing her 3 years of employment with the ‘E in which she could have been travelling with her husband also appears to be more or less the truth. So if the heat between the two couples is legit, that just makes this whole angle even more intriguing and simultaneously uncomfortable. I’d generally rather believe most of the wrestlers get along okay when the cameras are off. The thought that we’re seeing a lot of legit dirty laundry laced into this feud makes me almost as uncomfortable as when they used Reid Flair to sell a match with Charlotte.

But if you’ve watchede both these couples at any length, the body language tells the tale. If I had to wager money which is the genuine loving couple and which is a pair of self-interested pretenders using each other to further their own careers? I’d go with the Mizanens every single time. Why? Go watch the newest edition of the WWE Network show “24”, about the Raw after Mania. This was taped a bloody year ago, long before ANY of this drama became public on Total Divas or Smackdown, long before this match was ever planned. Listen to the way Mike Mizanen, backstage, while NOT in Miz Mode, gushes about how happy he is to have his wife on the road with him at long last. That love is genuine. Conversely, every single non-wwe interview, (like talk shows or morning shows), that I’ve seen Nikki or John discuss their relationship, both sound univested, like they’re reading a script. They sound wooden and passionless.

So with all this in mind, how would I book this match? Like so;

Cena and Nikki spend the better part of the match taunting Miz and Maryse, bullying them, shoving them around, acting like the Quarterback & Head Cheerleader archetypes they are. Slowly but surely the crowd swings more and more into the Mizanens’ favour, until finally Miz just utterly snaps and beats the ever living pulp out of Cena while Maryse knocks Nikki out cold so she doesn’t have to actually wrestle and risk aggrivating her bad neck. Miz turns face by shitkicking Cena into oblivion, giving Cena a storyline excuse to leave for Hollywood. Cena and Nikki go away, and Miz and Maryse go full face.

Taker Vs Roman

Again, as with the previous match, I went in-depth with this one in yesterday’s countdown column. Feel free to go read it if you haven’t already.

So how would I book this? I’m honestly not sure. Pretty much everyone I’d have put in this match instead of Roman is tied up elsewhere, except Samoa Joe, and he’s pretty likely to be in the Tripsy/Seth match for shenanigans. So being stuck with this match as is, my booking decisions have to take into account that Taker needs hip surgery and it’s about 90% likely as of this moment that this is his last hurrah. So as much as I hate the thought of contributing to Roman’s unearned ballistic push, the only way this match works is if Roman wins. But the trick is in HOW he wins.

As I explained in yesterday’s piece, if done right, this COULD be the match that finally wins us over on Roman and gets us to stop bitching about his pushes. He HAS to win, and he has to do it in a way that wins our respect.

That means he can’t spend the whole match getting his ass handed to him only to win on a complete fluke like his Fastlane match with Braun. Roman may have technically won that match but he came out of it looking pathetically weak while Strowman looked like every bit the monster.

Conversely, he can’t spend the match completely owning Taker either.

So I’d book it with Taker MOSTLY having the upper hand, with Roman getting in plenty of offense in the early going. Then as the match progresses, Roman is getting tired while Taker keeps doing his Takery stuff, sitting up like a zombie, no-selling like Hogan on a coke high. By 15 minutes in, it’s starting to look like the Strowman match, but only because Roman is exhausted. Roiman looked strong at first, unlike with Strowman where he was punked from the first bell. Taker starts to get frustrated, because Roman looks half dead but still keeps kicking out. Finally, it’s Roman who gets a second wind and starts fighting back instead of just fluking into victory. Roman and Taker give each other one last volley and both collapse, utterly spent, until Roman finds just enough willpower to drape an arm across Taker at the 35 minute mark, and this time Taker doesn’t sit up. After the victory, when Taker finally stirs, he shakes Roman’s hand and ROMAN leaves the ring, so Taker can have his goodbye, and bingo, Roman earns our respect at long last both for having such an emotionally exhausting story with taker, but for stepping aside so Taker can have his moment.

Goldberg Vs Lesnar

How would I book this? I wouldn’t. Unlike Vince I’m not a clueless out-of-touch imbecile obsessed with part-timers. I’d have NEVER had Oldberg go over KO. If this rematch HAS to happen fine, but leave championships out of it. Neither man needs a title. Either man having one is an insult to every full timer. This match is unnecessary, end of story.

And finally…

Wyatt Vs Orton for the WWE Title

Wyatt needs this. Two-Strikes doesn’t. If I were the booker I’d understand this. If Wyatt drops the belt to Two-Strikes, he loses stock with the audience. It buries him. He looks like an also-ran. He needs to keep that title at the absolute least until Summerslam, preferably until Survivor Series. Two-Strikes is already a mainsty in the WWE. Like John Cena he does not in any way need a title to be over with the casual audience, and the smarks either think, as I do, that he’s an overrated child who pulls too many power trips and gets away with way too much, or they think he’s a solid worker who keeps the heel slots filled.

Here’s the rub; Much like Cena/Nikki Vs the Mizanens, the company is booking this as if Orton is the face and Wyatt is the heel. And like that other match, the audience disagrees. Like that match, if this were a TV Show or a Movie, Orton would easily and undeniably be the villain. And the crowd knows it. They booed Two Strikes as he burned a shack and a dead woman. They’ve been cheering Wyatt for months. So I’d book this quite simply as Wyatt wins. Orton tries everything he can, but Wyatt out crazies him and gets the victory.

*****************

So now we come to the end of the column, and we address the title of this one; where we need to go from here.

It’s a fact that Raw’s ratings are among the worst they’ve been in over a decade, while Smackdown’s, though lower than Raw’s overall, are steadily growing. This is, flatly, because Smackdown in general is a better booked show that better utilizes it’s talent and mostly tries to give the audience what it wants, while Raw’s booking is disjointed and far too often tailored to serve Stephanie’s tv character at the expense of the product.

I’ve seen enough of Stephanie in real life to see that she’s a generally nice person. But she’s misguided and tone-deaf when it comes to the product. She operates under the delusion that she’s a great bad guy like her father, that the audience boos her because she’s a good heel, an effective villain we love to boo. She is utterly and completely oblivious to her own X-Pac Heat. She seems genuinely unaware that she is demonstrably hurting the product by putting herself not only on TV, but as a main part of Raw’s overall plot. At least a third of the segments every Raw involve her somehow, playing the evil authority figure. She needs to get off tv and let the spotlight be on the wrestlers. Daniel Bryan and Shane MacMahon on Smackdown understand this. They generally, aside of the shoehorned angle with Styles, only show up on TV to break up fights and make matches, and are never central to the plot. What minimal involvement they have in storylines is always to service the wrestlers. Stephanie’s involvement is always to put herself over and it takes away from the work of the wrestlers and the enjoyment of the fans. People way smarter than me have done the math, run algorithms, checked and rechecked calculations based on ratings breakdowns for the past several years, and have undeniably tied the ratings decline to Stephanie’s presence on air.

If they really want to turn things around and start to recover those lost ratings, here’s what WWE Needs to do.

  • Stephanie must get off TV entirely, and for the most part permanently. The audience is tired of “The Evil Authority Figure”, let alone of her playing one.
  • Raw needs to drop the third hour. What they’ll lose in ad revenue they’ll make back in merch sales increasing via fans regaining interest in the product instead of getting burnt out by too long a show.
  • Stop recycling Sasha and Charlotte repeatedly. They have plenty of other women on the roster, use them. Follow Smackdown’s lead.
  • Buy RoH full stop, not just their tape library, and merge it with NXT, to build future stars.
  • Once Anthem Entertainment loses their petty childish lawsuit over the Broken gimmick, bring the Hardys back with a lot of creative freedom, because the fans chanting “DELETE!!!” at the Hall of Fame and the NXT special despite the Hardys not having been on WWE TV in 8 or 9 years says they know what they’re doing and need no creative meddling.
  • Push the cruiserweights better. Lose the stupid “switching to purple ropes” shit. Go back and watch early Nitros and copy what worked with their cruiserweights. Have more than just 12 bloody guys in the damn division. Move 205 Live to BEFORE Smackdown to pop the Smackdown crowd.
  • Keep Cena the hell off TV.
  • Scale back Roman’s push. Don’t stall it outright, but don’t try so damned hard either.
  • Cut back on PPV’s. They’re not the company’s main revenue stream anymore thanks to the network all but killing actual ppv sales. Take more time between shows to build feuds.
  • Find sponsors that are comfortable with going back to TV-14. PG doesn’t work for wrestling.

I’m sure there are other things they can do to help right the ship, but overall I personally feel these are the most immediate fixes.

So I guess all that’s left is to watch Mania and see if it’s the trainwreck we fear it will be, or if they surprise us and make some Mania magic to remind us why we’re fans.

We now return you to the really real Ghostbusters.

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