Too Much Wrestling: One Night in Pittsburgh

The world of professional wrestling is so vast and fast-moving that it’s damn near impossible to keep up. Luckily, your pals at Deadshirt are here to keep an eye on squared circles everywhere, from modest bingo halls to packed football stadiums, and bring you the most notable matches and storylines from throughout the past week. And it’s a good thing, too, because there’s just TOO MUCH WRESTLING!

NO! I Don’t Want None

SmackDown Live (WWE)
March 14th, 2017, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
USA Network

SmackDown Live had somewhat of a rocky start after the brand split, due in part to having a noticeably smaller roster than RAW and a lack of direction with their talent pool. However, it quickly became the stronger of the two flagship shows thanks to two key factors— the rebirth of The Miz’s career in his show-stealing Intercontinental Championship run, and (possibly moreso) the sheer amount of work that AJ Styles has been putting in since day one. He came out on top in his feud with Dean Ambrose, taking the WWE Championship for his own, and defeated John Cena several times without any kind of dirty tricks or outside interference. AJ is far and away one of the top stars on either roster.

AJ garners more cheers than boos from the audience, but he’s still a heel by WWE’s standards. He’s cocky, he’s confident, he doesn’t have respect for anyone not named AJ Styles, but when it comes to his most recent feud he’s also…in the right?

For several weeks, AJ has fought for a shot at Bray Wyatt and the WWE Championship at Wrestlemania 33 after Wyatt Family member Randy Orton declared that he wouldn’t challenge his “master,” despite his victory at this year’s Royal Rumble. After fighting Luke Harper to a tie in a 10-man elimination match (even though AJ’s feet clearly touched the ground after Harper’s), AJ defeated him the next week in a one-on-one match that Commissioner Shane McMahon and GM Daniel Bryan arranged, over his protests. Unfortunately for AJ, the week after this victory, Randy Orton burned his bridges (quite literally) with Bray and let him know that he was coming for the title.

With two number one contenders, Shane and Daniel decided to have AJ and Randy fight for the right to face Bray, and Randy came out on top. This understandably pissed off AJ, who was now without a “WrestleMania moment” after fighting for his spot several weeks in a row and, in his own words, “putting SmackDown Live on the map” since its inception. This is supposed to come off as heelish behavior, but it’s not hard to sympathize. AJ has made a surprisingly salient argument for why he should be in the title picture by earning his spot fairly, helping elevate the show for months, and most importantly, not committing arson and desecrating a corpse. (Randy’s still the hero, by the way.)

This came to a head on Tuesday when AJ decided to address the crowd and then confront the management after they essentially told him, “Too bad, we gave you a shot and you lost,” after he won it once, possibly twice, depending how deeply you look into WWE’s storytelling logic. To me, this is like telling your kid that if he gets the best score on his test you’ll take him to Applebee’s, only to say, “Well you tied with your classmate Luke Harper, so you have to try again.” Then after he does better, you say, “Well, actually, your brother Randy Orton earned a trip to Applebee’s a few weeks ago and turned it down, but now he changed his mind and I’m not paying for two baskets of chicken fingers, so hit the books.” This should have been a Triple Threat, but wrestling doesn’t always follow its own established logic.

As the show opened, AJ went down his laundry list of grievances (including that Orton should be in jail for digging up a body and burning down a house) to the crowd, and they cheered him on, which the writers seemed to have anticipated. To try to turn the crowd on him, their solution was to have him jump Shane in the parking garage and put his head through a car window, which led to a livid Daniel Bryan firing him on the spot (the crowd was muted during these backstage segments, so I couldn’t tell if this worked in making him the bad guy in this scenario). While firing him does make sense, in the last few weeks Baron Corbin flattened Dean Ambrose with a forklift, and Randy Orton (again, in case you forgot) exhumed a corpse and committed arson, so it strikes me as really stupid that only AJ’s offense was considered fireable. Stone Cold was doing this stuff all the time in the Attitude Era, and just because Shane and Daniel aren’t mustache twirlers like Mr. McMahon, it doesn’t mean they haven’t been huge dickheads to AJ, even if he is cocky and rude. Hell, Randy Orton’s last face run had him playing a similar character, but now he’s committing major crimes, and they’re still portraying him as a good guy.

So now, as confirmed by Shane during the closing moment, AJ will get his WrestleMania moment. I wasn’t a huge fan of this match when it was just rumored, and I’m even less of a fan now. I’m betting it’s probably a big draw to put AJ in a match with Shane because nothing says you’re over like beating up a McMahon, and I’m completely fine with AJ playing the villain, as he’s much better at that role, but they did a terrible job of making Shane seem sympathetic, and because of that, the roles feel reversed. Sure he was beaten up by his employee, but this is the kind of power fantasy that appeals to many fans, especially the fans that looked up to Stone Cold as a hero in the Attitude Era. Sure, he’s not a nice guy and you shouldn’t actually beat up your boss, but this is entertainment, and by my reasoning as a guy that’s worked for his share of Shanes, AJ deserves to send his commissioner packing. Right back to the mean streets of Greenwich. Then again, Ambrose was a huge asshole for his whole title run as a face, so maybe SmackDown Live is moving away from the black and white nature of their traditions. Time will tell.

Extra High Spots: Maryse definitely seems like she’s stepped up her game on the mic. Unfortunately, Nikki hasn’t. Nikki has become pretty solid in the ring, however, but if Maryse has, that’s yet to be seen. Plus Cena and Miz are doing a good job of trading barbs, so all in all, I’m pretty excited to see how this mixed-tag match goes down.

– Kyle Herr

Enter Aries

205 Live (WWE)
March 14th, 2017, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
WWE Network

Immediately following SmackDown Live, the purple brand took over the PPG Paints Arena for what promised to be a momentous episode of 205 Live, in which the main event would determine who will face Cruiserweight Champion Neville at WrestleMania. This will be the first ‘Mania for this incarnation of the Cruiserweight Title, and for many casual fans, their introduction to the division. Getting the opportunity to compete for Neville’s belt on the grandest stage of them all is an extremely big deal, so an elimination match was held between five of the division’s finest—inaugural champion T.J. Perkins, veteran The Brian Kendrick, the Premier Athlete Tony Nese, the Stamina Monster Akira Tozawa, and finally Austin Aries. Aries was a star at TNA, then a major draw for NXT before injuring his eye socket, taking him out of action for months—months he would spend behind the commentator’s table on 205 Live teasing his eventual return to the ring.

Last week, Aries made his move, attacking the champion Neville during an in-ring interview. He later announced that he was officially joining the cruiserweight division. Aries has always been one of the most over guys on the show—before live WWE crowds got to know the new cruiserweights, it was Aries who would get the most chants and cheers. The crowd has been way into cheering his comical selfish villainy, enough to turn him from heel commentator to babyface wrestler overnight. His winning the contendership and getting the spotlight at WrestleMania was the obvious move, and so it came to pass.

Aries is unquestionably great, both as a character and an in-ring performer. Early in the match, Aries performed a gorgeous, insanely fast armdrag on Perkins that snapped his body loudly against the mat as if to announce Austin’s arrival to the crowd. Later, he superplexed Kendrick and Perkins off the top turnbuckle, and the awkward positioning of Kendrick made the move look both more realistic and more challenging. Plus, there’s the story of Aries’ recovery from being rammed violently through the barricade by Tony Nese’s running knee. This was Aries’ match through and through, and I’m happy for the guy.

The disappointing thing about this (to me, anyway), is that it robs the division’s other top performers—the ones who have been pulling double-headers on RAW and 205 Live for months—that same opportunity to show off their craft at WrestleMania. This five-way elimination match gave each competitor a moment to demonstrate why it just as easily could have been them instead of Aries, particularly in the case of Akira Tozawa. Now, Tozawa has also only been on the main 205 Roster for a short while (he made his Raw debut in early February), but he’s had a meteoric rise from basically zero. He’s a fantastic wrestler—in this match, he performed a perfect diving headbutt out of the ring and, of course, one of his patented German Suplexes—but he’s also managed to make a connection with the crowd despite evidently speaking very little English. He’s gotten “excited rhythmic screaming” over with the crowd as a catchphrase, and most importantly, the crowd only screams when he does it, not when, say, Tony Nese does it mockingly. I’m excited for Neville/Aries, but I’m even more psyched for Tozawa’s eventual run at the title.

Extra High Spots: The show opened with a fantastic heel promo from Neville (can you believe they used to never let this guy speak?) and a typically exciting match from the “human torture rack” Drew Gulak and the high-flying Mustafa Ali. Ali’s still got a ways to go before he’s ready for the title picture (his matches are fun but repetitive, and he doesn’t sell much damage), but damn, his signature spots are sizzling hot. This week’s special treat—a hurricanrana executed while balanced on the top rope.

Also, Jack Gallagher and Rich Swann danced in the ring. Wrestling is fun.

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