Two Out Of Three Falls

“All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, in 2017, I just think the existence of the WWE Network has made the purchasing of physical WWE Blu-Ray or DVDs redundant.  As such, I cannot justify reviewing them and encouraging you guys to purchase them.  For every individual product I would endorse here at Mass Movement, you would be better off investing the cost of that purchase into a month’s subscription to the Network and watching the DVD you were going to buy there, alongside hours and hours more.

 So I am hanging up my wrestling DVD reviewer’s pen and tapping out on what has become, in my opinion, a dated and non-cost effective form of commerce.”

It has been a while wrestling fans – and I was all set to do my annual post-Wrestlemania Two Out of Three Falls post – but before I get to that I want to talk a bit about reviews.

Before I started writing this column, I was first asked by Tim to review wrestling DVDs, which I have been doing on Mass Movement since 2013.  I jumped at the chance when Tim got in touch, as it meant I would no longer have to spend any money on the WWE releases I was regularly buying, and for the price of a few hundred words every few months I got to watch everything WWE was putting out early and for free – what could be better?

However, when I started doing the reviews it was a whole year before the long-heralded WWE Network came into existence, and then another year before the WWE Network was made (legally) available in the UK.  If you saw my column a few months ago, I mentioned that I would no longer be reviewing the DVDs of monthly wrestling Pay-Per-Views as it seemed to me that no matter how good the event was, I couldn’t in good conscience advocate you guys buying a DVD of something for £10 when you could buy a month of the WWE Network for a penny less and get the entire WWE catalogue of everything they have ever put out as well as whatever event the DVD was showing.  I opted instead to review only non-PPV releases, such as wrestler collections, documentaries, specials, etc.

So today, before I was going to write my post-Wrestlemania “Superstar Shakeup” edition of the column, I sat down to write my most recent two reviews: the thematically relevant Wrestlemania Monday and the anomalous, but seemingly compelling, Finn Balor: Iconic Matches but before I could put finger to keyboard something inside me snapped.

Because, you see, the first disc of the Wrestlemania Monday DVD was awesome – a behind the scenes look at last year’s Raw after Wrestlemania put into the context of that post-Wrestlemania Raw’s tradition of historical moments in wrestling.  As every wrestling fan knows, if Wrestlemania is every grappling year’s season finale, then the Raw after Wrestlemania is basically the premiere of the new season the following night.  The DVD charted AJ Styles’ push to the main event, the debut of NXT superstars Apollo Crews and Enzo and Cass, the return of Maryse and the main roster debut of Baron Corbin, while reminding us of historic moments such as Goldberg’s initial WWE debut, the night Dolph Ziggler won the world title, Brock Lesnar’s return, etc.

But, as good as that doc was – they are asking £20 for this three disc set and the documentary portion itself is already available on the WWE Network for £9.99.  So for it to be worth my telling anyone to buy it, the extra discs had to make it all worthwhile.  Unfortunately, far from making it worthwhile, they were basically insulting!  Two discs of chunked together matches with no context given, no introductions, no host – just a collection of moments from Raws since 1995 (Alundra Blayze vs Bull Nakano and the debut of Bertha Faye) to the present, all of which are available on the WWE Network’s library of old Raws.

Then came the Finn Balor collection.  While I will grant that his title match against Kevin Owens from Japan is definitely iconic, for such a fantastic WWE asset, this single disc collection – clearly made in combination with Mattel to sell Demon King toys from the Mattel marketing on the graphics – contains just three matches, again, with no context given or introduction, and all three are available on the WWE Network, alongside all of Balor’s other matches, many of which are far more iconic than the encounters with Neville and Tyler Breeze shown here (though remember when Breeze was someone you could have an “iconic” match with!  My how the mighty have fallen!)

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, in 2017, I just think the existence of the WWE Network has made the purchasing of physical WWE Blu-Ray or DVDs redundant.  As such, I cannot justify reviewing them and encouraging you guys to purchase them.  For every individual product I would endorse here at Mass Movement, you would be better off investing the cost of that purchase into a month’s subscription to the Network and watching the DVD you were going to buy there, alongside hours and hours more.

So I am hanging up my wrestling DVD reviewer’s pen and tapping out on what has become, in my opinion, a dated and non-cost effective form of commerce.

However, I still intend to do the occasional review of any live wrestling I may see, like the Progress review back in January (they return to Birmingham in July – and yes, I have tickets!), and I intend to continue with this column.  In fact, I intend to make this column more frequent and more regular, now I no longer have to find time to write reviews as well.  The aim will be to return to a bi-monthly format…with a view to eventually go monthly if I think I can find the time.

And, of course, if I see anything good on the WWE Network (or any other digital wrestling service, such as Progress On Demand) I shall point it in your direction through the column.  For instance – I recommend you check out that Wrestlemania Monday documentary on there right now, and search through a few Finn Balor matches too – as well as watching the NXT Takeover event from Wrestlemania weekend, of course, and Wrestlemania 33 itself.

Which brings me to Wrestlemania, and the fallout from Wrestlemania.

Once again this year’s “Showcase of the Immortals” was a seven hour behemoth.  As a Brit, who due to work commitments is forced to watch it the following day rather than live, I have to learn to concede now that Wrestlemania requires at least half a day to enjoy – and I have no idea how the live crowd manage to maintain their enthusiasm for so long – but surprisingly, despite my concern about such a long 14 match card (and another unnecessary performance from Flo Rida and friends) I found this year’s Wrestlemania to be one of the best Manias yet!

From the thrilling cruiserweight opener of the kickoff show between Austin Aries and Neville, to the jaw-dropping Shane McMahon vs AJ Styles opener of the real show, to the brilliance of Chris Jericho’s light up scarf, to lifelong fan, Bayley’s, Wrestlemania debut, to the EXHILIRATING return of the Hardy Boyz, to the soppy but silly proposal of John Cena to Nikki Bella, to Stephanie McMahon’s awesome table bump, to Bray Wyatt’s not-so-awesome use of projected ring images, to the surprisingly great match between Lesnar and Goldberg erasing the demons of Wrestlemania XX, to Naomi’s always awesome entrance and hometown win, to the  shocking and emotional retirement of the legendary Undertaker – this year’s Wrestlemania truly was the “ultimate thrill ride” it was billed to be.  And the thrills continued the next two nights on Raw and Smackdown, as the landscape changed with the main roster call ups of Tye Dillinger and Shinsuke Nakamura to Smackdown, and The Revival and the returning Finn Balor on the new, Kurt Angle-run, Raw.

Then Vince McMahon appeared on WWE TV for the first time in a long time and announced a “Superstar Shakeup” to move talent between the two brands the following week.

Now, I was sceptical about the return of the Brand Extension last year, and couldn’t initially see the point in WWE returning to two separate brands, but since it happened I have become a firm convert, and have really liked the way the company have kept the two shows separate.  Even at Wrestlemania, I was happy to see only the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal containing superstars from both brands, as it means that when we finally do have the next Raw versus Smackdown match – whenever it may occur – it will be meaningful, instead of just something to expect at every multi-brand show.  And I have enjoyed seeing the different shows develop, specifically Smackdown, which, for my money is the best WWE branded show each week.  While Raw continues to feel bloated at three hours, and dragged a lot with dull Stephanie McMahon/Mick Foley stories, or continued to waste time with unfunny New Day/Enzo and Cass skits, or wasted talent with Samoa Joe’s non-triumphant call-up; Smackdown felt vital and vibrant.  It has genuinely felt like the “land of opportunity”, even with John Cena on the roster, and while Raw feels interminable each week, Smackdown’s main event always leaves me wanting more.

The “Superstar Shakeup” troubled me for two reasons.  First, I didn’t want them to mess with Smackdown.  Simple as that.  Second though, I didn’t like the idea of superstars switching brands while each brand is still effectively in its infancy.  Give them a year to develop clear identities and for us to get bored of the various pairings.  If you really must, have a few individual moves throughout the year, that have impact and shock factor (as Jack Swagger proved – you can always claim a contract expired one week and was picked up by the other brand the next).  But to swap over 20 superstars around across two days just reeked of change for the sake of change.  Change with no clear plan.  And the impact of that change was ruined coming, as it did, a week after the Raw and Smackdown after Wrestlemania, where each show already had multiple debuts and an injection of new talent and storylines.

Some of the “shake up” made sense.  Apollo Crews was doing nothing on Smackdown – maybe he can finally develop a personality beyond “generic smiling athlete” over on the red brand?  But then, they didn’t actually have him do anything on week one of the “shake up” and on week two all he got was a silly promo with Titus O’Neill – an equally floundering superstar.  Similarly, I like the idea of Sami Zayn on Smackdown, as he was being wasted on Raw – but he went over to Smackdown and basically became re-embroiled with his old Raw (and NXT) rival Kevin Owens, which made the classic “Fight Forever” chants of their earlier matches sound depressingly prescient.  Especially as WWE has already made clear who comes out on top whenever these two superstars do fight.

Other moves made no sense at all.  For instance – why move the Miz and Dean Ambrose over to Raw together to have an Intercontinental Title feud they could have had on Smackdown?  Obviously Raw needed the IC title because Smackdown is getting the US championship – but why make the swap?  So Kevin Owens can continue to fight Sami Zayn?  So Chris Jericho can fight AJ Styles one more time?  And while we’re at it – it was sad to see people wearing Lucha Dragons t-shirts as they announced Kalisto’s return to Raw after his nothing-career as a singles superstar on Smackdown..only for Sin Cara to return from Raw to Smackdown the following night, ensuring the continued death of the once exciting team.  And what was Kalisto’s first role on Raw?  Being smashed by Braun Strowman backstage.  Likewise, Curt Hawkins was moved from jobbing on Smackdown over to jobbing on Raw.  Why?

I’m happy to see the Colons getting a new lease of life on Smackdown in its waning tag team division, and the New Day should inject some fun into the brand – but it is clear Raw will eat Heath Slater and Rhyno alive.  Meanwhile, the Smackdown womens’ division needed some new blood, and I’m happy to see Charlotte coming over, and have hopes that the return of Tamina and debut of Lana will at least give us some new combinations of people to feud.  Jinder Mahal seems to finally be getting a bit of a push in his new blue home, which is nice to see too, and I hope his affiliation with the former Bollywood Boys means he will not be re-paired with the career-killing Rusev, who serves no real purpose over on Smackdown (though I am glad they kept him and Lana together in terms of real life travel arrangements and such, if not on screen together.  It seemed a real dick move to split up the recently married Dean Ambrose and Renee Young!)  Bray Wyatt, I am sure, will do well on Raw, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan for him in place, considering he was still midway through his feud with Randy Orton when it happened (a feud which could have happily ended at Wrestlemania!)  Alas, I fear the main reason he is there is to be sacrificed for the great Braun Strowman project.  Remember – Strowman was once a Wyatt, and Bray can’t seem to shake Harper or Rowan wherever his career takes him, so he probably won’t get the stink of Strowman off him either; a readymade feud which Wyatt will not win!

I’m glad to see Alexa Bliss being used well on Raw in her first few weeks, and Mickie James’ move makes sense to complete her enhancement tour of all the WWE brands and help put new talent over on TV.  But why swap Byron Saxton for David Otunga when both brands would be better off without either of them.  Saxton’s role as the butt of everyone’s jokes is tired, and he has no personality at the announce desk.  Otunga has struggled to connect with me over on the busy four man Smackdown booth, and when he does speak he brings little insight to the table despite his former in-ring career.  The move was made even more bizarre when Otunga then got a job on a film and couldn’t actually appear on Raw!  Though it is nice to have Booker T back for a few weeks – I look forward to an updated Fave Five in the near future.

Sometimes WWE do things just for the sake of it – and as announcers are a key component of the feel of each brand, to change the “voice” of Raw or Smackdown is a mistake.  That said, Smackdown has unfortunately had its true voice silenced already thanks to WWE totally dropping the ball on Mauro Ranallo.  Ranallo was the greatest play-by-play man the company has hired since Good Ol’ JR hung up his hat – and the fact WWE couldn’t manage the in-house bullying from JBL – and others – which caused Ranallo to leave is a testament to the company’s inability to truly “Be A Star” when it comes to bullying.

That Ranallo suffers from bipolar disorder is neither here nor there – a company should be able to deal with such health issues, and sure, have a back-up if needed.  Indeed – think how much help the WWE would provide for people with the same problem if they could openly say some weeks “Mauro Ranallo isn’t here tonight due to an issue with his bipolar disorder but we look forward to seeing him back here soon” – normalising the condition and making it something to openly talk about rather than a shameful taboo.

But Ranallo hasn’t gone because of depression – he’s gone, apparently, because of persistent bullying.  The same thing that caused Mick Foley to walk away from the Smackdown announce desk a few years ago.

Bottom line is, Tom Phillips is no Mauro Ranallo, and Smackdown’s commentary team is impoverished by his absence.  If you were going to do a “shake up” swap Ranallo for Cole.  We’ve seen how well Ranallo works with Corey Graves (the best colour guy of this generation) from 205 Live and that two man team would finally be a reason to watch Raw, and we know that Cole and JBL work well together.  Get rid of the vanilla nobodies clogging up the rest of the airtime with commercials and vacuous non-contributions and return to distinctive and entertaining two person teams.

But apparently, just as WWE always hated Jim Ross for being too Southern, and Joey Styles for being the original “phenomenal one”, they didn’t like Ranallo for being himself.  The things that made Ranallo’s commentary so good – his dramatic way of talking (“mama mia!”), his odd jokes and weird pop culture references (“ain’t no party like an uppercut party cuz an uppercut party don’t stop!”), his actual knowledge of wrestling moves (“tope suicida!” “Ushigoroshi!”) were apparently not liked by Vince McMahon and producer Kevin Dunn, and so, as usual, the fans suffer from a poorer product so that the whims of the WWE’s masters are self-destructively satisfied.

That said – whether I liked it or not, the “Superstar Shakeup” happened.  Hopefully the brands will now be allowed to continue to be themselves and develop without any further messing about with them for a long while.  There are a lot of new faces on each show, and a lot of opportunity to do something interesting.  Personally I would like to see the brand separation go even further.  At the moment each show is a carbon copy of each other – same number of champions, same general way of running things, etc.  I’d like to start seeing some show-specific variations to make them more distinct.  Something like “on Smackdown there is a ranking system for number one contender” or “on Raw the IC title is always defended in an open challenge” or one brand developing a women’s tag division or having an exclusive brand-specific idea like King of the Ring.  The more we make the two brands distinct, and the less crossover there is, the more we crave to see what would happen if a Smackdown superstar made their way to Raw, or vice versa.  The “Superstar Shakeup” came too early, but now it has happened, let’s let the brands breathe as we begin the 2017/18 season and see where it takes us between now and Wrestlemania next year.  Dan McKee

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