The Live Experience

If you follow WWE at all, you probably know that over the last 10 days they’ve been touring the UK and mainland Europe. And if you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw that I went to three of the shows – Raw in Manchester, SmackDown in Manchester, and a SmackDown house show in Glasgow.

There was a lot to love about all three shows. I got to see some of my all-time favourites for the first time, and some of the matches were great. I saw title changes, main roster debuts, a heel turn and just some great work on the mic and in the ring.

I thought the opening of Raw was good, and the crowd seemed up for it. Brock Lesnar was boo-ed extensively, as was Baron Corbin, whereas Braun Strowman seemed to be getting that big time star reaction and it was an awesome surprise to get a Kurt Angle appearance and match announced for later in the night.

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But they followed that up in the worst way, with a 17 minute 6-woman tag team match that everyone had already seen, that nobody was clamouring for one more time, and focusing on a gimmick that had just been introduced and nobody cared about. It just killed the crowd, who took to amusing themselves when the match just randomly ended by counting the Riott Squad out.

To be honest, it was a long way back from there. People liked Seth Rollins, but it wasn’t the mega-pop that I thought he could have gotten. The thought did cross my mind when it was announced that he would be defending the tag titles on his own that there would be a moment when he would convince us that he would retain, and he certainly did for me.

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It was not a good night for Seth Rollins…

But in the end, AOP were too much and new champions were crowned. I think they’re good choices to be the new champions, but really, who else was there? It was too soon to go back to Ziggler & McIntyre (although there are other factors that I’ll touch on in a bit in play with those two), and the other most recent champions were the B Team, who were only ever novelty acts, and Matt Hardy & Bray Wyatt, who have both been missing in action while Matt takes some time to heal injuries and consider his next move.

Who are the rest of the tag division? The Revival, but they’ve been even more anonymous that AOP over the last few months, much as I love them. Bobby Roode & Chad Gable are both really good wrestlers, and Glorious is just as over as ever, but it doesn’t feel like a long term partnership to me. Lucha House Party have just come back on to Raw, so it was too soon for them. Breezango are out of the picture while Fandango recovers from injury, as are Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn.

AOP can do great things with the titles, but make no mistake about it, they are just as much champions by default right now.

Then we got the curious case of Elias. He was the most popular guy on Raw – I’m not sure it was even close. Most of the crowd were singing for him even before the show, and cries of “Walk With Elias” permeated the Manchester Arena regularly.

But the difference between an Elias concert and an Elias match… it’s worrying. People love the man and the gimmick, but they just aren’t interested in his matches. And when it’s a wrestling show, that’s an issue.

I would not feel comfortable putting any championship on him right now. He is super over, but I do not care about seeing him in the ring, and if he’s a champion the focus would be more on his in-ring work than ever. I think it would actually harm him and the title, and as we’ve seen so often over the years, when someone loses a touch of magic, it can be impossible to get it back.

I wonder if being a manager would be a better role for him. With Drake Maverick, Lio Rush and Zelina Vega all regular parts of WWE programming as mouthpieces, Vince seems to have changed his mind on the role. If you have someone who gets the solid reactions at worst that Elias does, and pair him up with someone who can hold attention in matches, that would be a way of showcasing the best of both parties.

The question is just who. Having just turned face, Elias doesn’t have any allies yet that would be obvious candidates. In terms of getting the best out of each person, someone like Apollo Crews would be perfect, but that just feels like a weird dynamic. For the time being, it looks like Elias will be soldiering on alone, but he needs to do more for me.

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Ronda Rousey continues to impress me. She was always going to have the athleticism to adapt to the wrestling side of things eventually, but her promos have been strong too. I thought this was really good, building up to a face vs face encounter at Survivor Series against Becky Lynch. Rousey showed respect, putting over Lynch’s performance at Evolution, but also showed a determination to prove that she is the best. That’s what was needed.

But I think everyone could have done without the confrontation with Nia Jax. Jax was over around Wrestlemania time, but since she lost the title and missed time through injury, it just hasn’t been the same. I think her heel turn was the quietest reaction to a turn I’ve ever heard, and I’m not sure what the next step is to build her back up, but I don’t think being paired with Tamina is going to do much in either of their favours.

It was really cool to see Drew McIntyre vs Kurt Angle as the main event for a lot of reasons. For one, travelling down from Scotland, I loved seeing McIntyre in that spot against a legend. For two, actually getting Angle in a match was a huge bonus. For three, McIntyre won. I know that the talk online has been that Angle was buried, but that wasn’t the impression I got there live, not hearing the commentary. I thought it was all about putting McIntyre over in a big way, and giving him a clear win against a legend who realistically shouldn’t be in a title picture again.

One thing that was clearly evident on Raw was the lack of star power. With no Reigns or Lesnar, or the appearances from the likes of Triple H, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker that have been commonplace in recent times, it has exposed the top of the Raw card. It was only after the bell rang that I realised McIntyre vs Angle was actually the main event, because it just always felt like there was something bigger to come.

That’s why it was important to give McIntyre a win like that. He is the freshest face that is closest to that spot, and he has all the potential in the world. He has a great look, he showed on the indies that he can deliver great matches, and he can cut one hell of a promo when given the chance. All he needs is to be established as a top guy through wins. That’s why I noted earlier that he shouldn’t be back in the tag title scene with Ziggler, because WWE badly needs to push him now. If he excels the way he did in Impact, ICW and WCPW, he could be in line for a title push in 2019. Hell, if Rollins and Ambrose’s feud continues long term, it will either be McIntyre or Strowman going for the Universal Title against Lesnar at Wrestlemania, and as things stand it would not surprise me at all to see McIntyre get that nod.

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The same star power issues certainly cannot be said of SmackDown. Tuesday night was by far the superior show, and Daniel Bryan, The Miz, AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev were all left off the match card. So were the tag team champions, and Charlotte, Asuka and Naomi. Whereas Raw has too much time and always features filler segments, SmackDown literally can’t fit everyone into one show.

The matches were generally strong all night, and importantly left you wanting more. The New Day and The Usos arguably had the main roster’s feud of the year last year, and showed that they will always have that chemistry by putting on another excellent tag match. The Usos seem to have cooled off a bit, but that comes with being out of the picture for a while. The New Day are as entertaining as ever, which can’t be underestimated considering they have been a unit for four and a half years, and faces for nearly three.

Even though I thought Rousey’s promo from Raw was good, Becky Lynch then came and blew it out of the water. Lynch is on another level right now, and the crowd are reacting in kind to it. The fire (pun intended) that she is showing every time is unreal, and it has made her one of the most compelling characters right now across any brand in the company.

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She actually fired herself up so much that she wanted to fight, and issued an open challenge. That gave us the long awaited debut of another one of the hottest characters in the company – Nikki Cross – not that you would have known it. I popped big, but I felt like I was the only one as NXT’s twisted sister got in the face of the SmackDown Women’s Champion. That was a great moment, and after being able to say I saw Noam Dar’s debut in Glasgow two years ago, I got to be there in person for another Scottish wrestler’s first appearance on the main roster. That was awesome.

For the time given, Rey Mysterio vs Andrade “Cien” Almas was fantastic. Almas is another one who has everything needed to be a top star, and this match was just so smooth. Coming in at under 10 minutes, it left everyone who saw it wanting to see longer matches and a proper feud, which is exactly what it should have accomplished.

It was a similar story with Jeff Hardy vs Samoa Joe. Although the match itself wasn’t as good, the pairing intrigued me. I would be really  interested to see what kind of dynamic would come out of a proper rivalry in WWE between these two.

I need to take a moment to talk about Jeff here. Growing up, he was my favourite wrestler. The Hardys’ return at last year’s Wrestlemania is one of my all-time greatest moments as a fan, but Jeff was out injured when WWE were in the UK last year. I can finally say that I’ve seen him live, and that is something I can cherish.

While I was seeing his once in Manchester, I doubled up in Glasgow. Really, so did he, as he opened the show challenging Shinsuke Nakamura for the United States Championship. This was a lot of fun, with both guys mocking the others’ signature taunts. With the experience between these two, it was never going to be a bad match.

Jeff was super popular, he went round the ring during his entrance taking photos with fans, and was still there for a while after his match too. He was so popular, I thought they cut him off by playing Sanity’s music for the next match. Then Jeff faced off with them and briefly started brawling, and it was clearly deliberate.

If there was any doubt over that, when Sanity vs Gallows & Anderson ended in a disqualification and the numbers game was working against the good brothers, it was Jeff who came back out to even things up. That was when I finally got to see a Swanton Bomb in person.

After only being in the comedy shenanigans that was the dark main event last Tuesday night, it was great to see a proper match with AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan. Samoa Joe was thrown into the mix for a triple threat match for the WWE Championship. This was a really hard hitting affair, but I feel like it only showed a glimpse of what these three would be capable of doing the same match on a bigger stage.

Conspicuous by his absence in Glasgow was The Miz. He had been selling the knee injury from Crown Jewel all the way through SmackDown even into the dark match, so I suppose it made sense, but I was a little surprised that he didn’t even come out for a promo. He started the dark match with an extended promo that was mostly stalling, but still excellent. He doesn’t do that kind of thing on TV, but in front of a live crowd The Miz absolutely thrives. I’m not sure there’s anyone better at that kind of schtick in WWE, because time and time again I’ve seen Miz rile up a crowd like no other. He has never truly been a top guy in WWE, but if was given a spot at the top he would absolutely have earned it at this point.

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One thing that I realised from Raw and SmackDown, is that even though WWE are all about the TV ratings for revenue, nothing beats the live experience. Raw was widely panned, but being in the crowd and being part of the show meant that I still really enjoyed it.

Equally, SmackDown was universally praised from what I could see, and I think being in the crowd for it made it even better. The house show always allows people to show a different side to their performance, they can be a little more light-hearted instead of having to hit time cues, so everyone has a little more fun.

Live attendances may be down for WWE across the board, but nothing beats the live experience. That’s where everyone thrives as performers, and where fans are made a far more important part of the show. You laugh just as much as you cheer, boo, just as much as you are in awe or disappointed. Given the choice to watch WWE on TV or being in the crowd, I know which one I’d prefer every time.

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