At the risk of repeating myself, I want to talk a little about commercial breaks and their function in wrestling in an era where advertisers are so desperate to be seen that they’re willing to share space with what they used to interrupt. NXT made a big deal about running Finn Bálor and Adam Cole with no breaks, and AEW did the same with the match between Hangman Page and Kenny Omega and the Lucha Brothers.
I’ll get into how those matches worked with no breaks in individual breakdowns, but the idea of showing what’s happening during commercial breaks is, in my opinion, not a good way to experience wrestling, nor is it much incentive to keep from changing the channel to something else. Wrestling is a kinetic sensory experience, and it does not work next to the quick cuts and busy scenes of your typical car insurance commercial. I like Steve Buscemi, but I don’t want to hear his voice when what I should be hearing is a crowd, a commentary team, and the horrible, beautiful noise a human body makes when it hits a wrestling mat.
If I’m meant to evaluate the dramatics of a wrestling match, picture-in-picture is a detriment to it, and I’d like to go back to the mystery of hard commercial breaks. This would most benefit AEW, who haven’t quite figured out how to book PiP segments. So let’s start there.
AEW: Another manic Wednesday.
Dynamite, as has become routine, suffers not from being bad, but for trying to accomplish a ludicrous amount of storytelling in every segment. This week we opened with a tag match between the Lucha Brothers and the team of Kenny Omega and Adam Page. A quick aside on that, before digging into AEW’s juggling act: It was spectacular and mediocre at the same time. There was an obvious hitch in Fenix and Omega’s step, and Omega was working a weird pseudo-concussion where he was down and out on the ring apron and shaky elsewhere. On balance, I did not like it, and the segment that followed only served to frustrate me further.
After the Lucha Brothers picked up the win due to miscommunication, Omega and Page started shoving each other. They were interrupted by Pac, who intimated that he was going to attack Michael Nakazawa. So Omega bails on his squabble with Page to find Pac as we go to PiP. Omega checks a few rooms, neither Pac nor Nakazawa are anywhere to be found, and then Omega gets attacked… by the Lucha Brothers. He’s saved by Page, with whom he was just arguing, and then the two wander around the back like Spinal Tap trying to find the stage until we cut to a shot of Darby Allin skulking around before his tag match.
More Pro Wrestling:
- Understanding the Painmaker, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Become Judas in My Mind
- The Supernatural Powers of Keiji Mutoh
- Still Life Critique & Q&A with Still Life with Apricots and Pears
It’s so much! It’s too much! A lot of it, up to and including the opening contest, feels like it’s happening just so that something can occupy a screen, namely the same 10 or so people AEW have an idea what to do with. A later PiP segment looked like it was going to make full use of that format, as Sammy Guevara brought out cue cards for a Chris Jericho promo booked, for some reason, to take place during the space where I’m supposed to learn who to call if a loved one of myself has been exposed to asbestos, but two cue cards in I got a full screen promo for How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It’s sloppy and awful and if this is how it’s going to be, why try at all?
Oh yeah, the wrestling. I don’t understand why Cody Rhodes is beefing with the Butcher and the Blade, but he and Darby Allin beat them clean in a good match that, rather than continue said beef or the one Cody’s yet to squash with MJF, sets up a future match between he and Allin. Awesome Kong squashed a local competitor, squashes making up about 50% of the women’s division’s time on broadcast television. Chris Jericho, as usual, was the star of the show. His 10-minute match against Jungle Boy Jack Perry was great, the 10-minute challenge conceit doing a lot for the idea that Perry (and his friends) have more heart than anybody else on the roster. After failing to win in 10 minutes with a gnarly Liontamer, Jericho demanded another five minutes, which he bailed on after two Jack Perry near-falls. I loved it.
The best match on the show, and one of the best on the night, was the #1 Contendership match between Kris Statlander and Doctor Britt Baker, Doctor of Medical Dentistry. AEW is doing an excellent job of building Statlander, who was a breakout star on the indies not too long ago, as a centerpiece of a division that’s still finding its identity. The stuff about the Nightmare Collective I can do without, even if people are getting stabbed in the eye with expensive high heels. The stuff where she’s booping Tony Schiavone on the nose and powering out of Britt’s Mouth Stuff submission to hit package tombstone piledrivers? I can’t get enough of it. I need it.
The main event, SCU vs. The Young Bucks, was way better than I expected it to be, probably the first SCU match I’ve outright enjoyed that didn’t involve ladder-assisted murder. I’m more interested in the culmination of all of the Dark Order segments, which was them beating up everybody in the ring, SCU and The Elite, and initiating the Beaver Boys into their cult. It’s not often that something in wrestling grosses me out, but Evil Uno stuck his fist all the way into Matt Jackson’s mouth and got blood on his hand while doing it, so, yeah, a strong note to go out on.
NXT: Get those fans out of the ring.
The last time I saw WWE run anything on television commercial free was in 2009, when Donald Trump, at that time a grisly steak and failed casino magnate, purchased Monday Night Raw from the WWE. John Cena fought the Big Show, Triple H and Randy Orton knocked each other out, and Trump refunded the live audience and fired Santino Marella’s crossdressing gimmick, Santina Marella, in a pre-taped segment with a frankly shocking amount of ADR audience noise. If Raw in 2019 feels like an exercise in futility, Trump’s kayfabe purchase of Raw led to a two year long stretch of celebrity general managers, so it could totally be worse.
NXT only featured one commercial free segment, the NXT Championship match between Finn Bálor and Adam Cole. Unlike the 2009 commercial free stunt, this match was presented as such to give it an edge in importance over NXT’s rival promotion, as both companies running picture-in-picture during commercials has granted neither company much leverage over each other. The match was good, too—Cole feels like a legitimately special star after his November streak of show-stealing performances, and Bálor continues to wrestle like the mean prick I fell in love with six years ago.
Where the match succeeded was in giving me a taste of what Cole would have been had he gone on an extended tour of New Japan. Where it didn’t succeed was in using it to spring Johnny Gargano’s return to action on an unsuspecting Bálor, who fell for the ol’ “someone is standing on the ramp and I’ve got to look at them” trick, which allowed Cole to hit him in the nuts and pick up the win. Obviously Bálor and Cole with a legitimate payoff is the business of a future TakeOver, but it’s always a bit of a let down to see a match get hyped as special, come close to delivering as special, and get clipped for a storyline that could just as well have been saved for after the match. Worse, this happens all the time in Adam Cole/Undisputed Era matches, and Gargano’s attack, while good, led to yet another bit where someone topples over a guardrail onto a sea of Performance Center plants.
All of that got me real nervous that NXT was going to pull what they did on the first Wednesday night they went head-to-head with AEW, which was throw out a bunch of championship matches with no real changes coming to the brand, which made it hard to pay attention to the middle section of the show. That said? KUSHIDA and Cameron Grimes had a minor banger of a match that had a hell of a finishing stretch, and while it’s hard to see where either man fits into NXT’s various title pictures, they both need to go on the hunt for something as soon as possible.
The main event, Shayna Baszler defending her championship against Rhea Ripley, was great. Of course it was great. NXT as a brand does two things better than any other wrestling promotion on television—treating women’s wrestling seriously and building up title matches as event viewing—and this match did both of those things. Their feud to this point has revolved around the question of what happens when a dominant champion faces someone who has an answer for everything that’s made her dominant, and while drawing comparisons to Hogan/Warrior or Vader/Sting is ridiculous, fuck it, that’s one of the all-time best templates for championship feuds to adopt, and the patience required to pull it off well is impossible.
I am an old woman, so I have some quibbles and would like to climb onto the soapbox for a minute. Baszler is a legit MMA fighter, and the finish she’s known for in NXT is a choke hold. Unless she really sucks at that choke hold, Ripley should have gone to sleep shortly after Baszler pulled back and stopped Ripley from grabbing a rope. Like, I understand the dramatic nature of sitting in a submission for a minute or two, but there was something real ham-and-cheese about Ripley grabbing the referee by the shirt collar to stop him from calling for the bell, a synthetic bit of moment-making that had the opposite effect on me. Also, who let all those fans in the ring? Were their shoes clean? Did they wipe them off on the apron before getting in? The squared circle is a church and should be respected as such, ya dirty heathens.