WWE walked a delicate line in 1997. Bret Hart and the Hart Foundation was a hated heel group in every city WWE ran inside the United States. Yet in Canada, that group comprised the most over babyfaces in the company.
They were heels in some cities, babyfaces in others. It was a strange dynamic, but WWE pulled it off. It could be said that they’re trying to do the same thing almost 20 years later with Roman Reigns, and it could work.
Last night, Roman Reigns defeated AJ Styles in the main event of Extreme Rules to retain his WWE World Title. After the match, a returning Seth Rollins attacked Reigns, closing the show holding Reigns’ title over his head.
Rollins looked to be in peak physical condition after about six months off due knee surgery. The New Jersey crowd, which as expected was very against Reigns, gave Rollins a loud ovation. Michael Cole correctly pointed out on the show’s commentary that Rollins never lost the WWE Title, he was forced to vacate it due to his injury.
The immediate Twitter reaction was to be expected. People gagged on Reigns going over Styles and laughed at the notion that WWE will try to keep Roman a babyface by pitting him against a well-respected worker like Rollins, who is loved by the older crowd that is typically anti-Reigns.
But that rush to judgement is perhaps a bit premature.
It appears to me that WWE is trying to do in 2016 what it successfully pulled off 20 years ago, and that’s keeping both sides of the fanbase happy.
Reigns against Sheamus did not work. Period. Sheamus isn’t over with that “smart” crowd that flocks to television events in order to boo Reigns, especially in the northeast.
Styles was one of the guys the older fans adored. Rollins is as well.
If you take a step back, WWE is continuing to push Reigns as the babyface, which is something that they want long-term and also something that the kids and more casual fans seem to be accepting (even though the numbers suggest the casual fan is running away from Raw and WWE in general).
Meanwhile, WWE is giving those older fans hope spots with wrestlers that they respect and want to cheer for. Styles was the first challenger, and now it’s Rollins. It’s the same formula WWE would use when pushing a heel champion. They’re lining up babyfaces to challenge that champ, giving the fans hope that one of their favorites will finally take the title from him.
They’re feeding the best of both worlds.
After all, the best story in wrestling is the chase for the title. If you’re over 18, your heel has the title and your babyfaces — Styles, Rollins, maybe even Balor — are chasing it. At some point Reigns has to lose, and as long as he loses to the right person (not John Cena), it will be a moment that pays off for those fans that endure the journey.
1. Baron Corbin beat Dolph Ziggler
Predictable result, with Corbin going over but nothing really feels special about him yet. It’s the big-fish-in-a-small-pond problem, but Corbin felt like such a much bigger deal when he was in NXT, and that hasn’t yet translated to the main roster. His look is good and I like the theatrics around some of his character, including his entrance, but there is a piece that’s still missing.
Ziggler, on the other hand, has become the company’s No. 1 guy to just put guys over. We all see the similarities to Shawn Michaels in the way he bumps and feeds, but I thought that Kevin Nash made a really good point in an interview last week with PWTorch.com’s Wade Keller. He brought up that he’d like to see Ziggler change up the way he feeds into that offense. He talked about how Scott Hall helped Michaels change the way he bumped, including just falling into the ropes sometimes, in order to change up the look and feel of the match. That could help Ziggler moving forward.
2. Doc Gallows & Karl Anderson beat The Usos
Gallows and Anderson needed this win badly. WWE had a hot commodity in this team one month ago, when they made their debut, but to say that WWE has fumbled this team would be an understatement. The more they treat Gallows and Anderson like just some regular tag team, the more they become just some regular tag team.
After serving as fodder for Roman Reigns in his feud with AJ Styles/The Club over the last several weeks, it was nice to see them get a big tag-team win here tonight. They needed it.
From here, WWE should really let them loose and have them ready, by SummerSlam, to challenge New Day for the tag titles.
3. Rusev beat Kalisto to win the U.S. Title
Rusev looked like a monster in this match, and as has been the case on Raw and Smackdown over the last several weeks, WWE continued down the path of rebuilding Rusev into a menacing monster heel.
The biggest character development, as far as Rusev goes, actually came on the pre-show. They did a backstage interview with Rusev and Lana titled, “#AskRusev” where Tom Phillips asked Rusev and Lana questions from Twitter. Rusev showed some really good character in that segment and this idea that he shouldn’t speak, as was the case with Rusev-Lana in 2014, should no longer be the case.
4. New Day beat The Vaudevillains to retain the Tag Titles
This was a good, physical match that was, albeit short, kept the New Day strong. Coming out of this house match, I’d be worried that WWE doesn’t have much high hopes for the Vaudevillains. Not only did New Day get a relatively quick victory, but they did so while also kicking out of the Vaudevillain’s finisher.
There really aren’t any more “finishers” in pro wrestling. Everyone kicks out of everything all the time. But kicking out of a team’s finish after they’ve been on television for just a month could be death for that team.
It’s not as if that Vaudevillian gimmick has a long shelf life anyway, but it still kills that move. The match just didn’t need that, and WWE could have gotten the same result, with New Day still put over strong, without kicking out of the finisher.
5. The Miz beat Kevin Owens, Cesaro and Sami Zayn to retain the IC Title
This was an incredible match. Typically, I’m not a huge fan of multi-man matches, but these four guys found the perfect balance, the perfect pace and they all have incredible chemistry.
Also, huge credit to Miz in this match, who didn’t look out of place despite being in there with some world-class wrestlers. Imagine a few years ago, if we said that Kevin Steen, El Generico, and Claudio Castagnoli were going to have a four-way? You would have expected Miz to be lost completely.
The spot where Cesaro had Miz tapping, but Maryese distracted the referee, should set up for Cesaro being one of the first to challenge for the title in a one-on-one situation. Not to mention Cesaro had Owens beat before Zayn broke up the pin.
But they also set up where both Owens and Zayn had legitimate shots at pins that were broken up as well. It could be very interesting. To see where WWE goes from here with the IC Title.
The New Jersey crowd was absolutely insane for this match as well. Incredible job by all four guys. If you haven’t seen this match, go out of your way to watch the replay just for this. Match of the night.
6. Dean Ambrose beat Chris Jericho in an Asylum Match
Goofy concept with the weapons on the cage. It felt like an over-the-top gimmicky TNA match. This match also suffered from following the ultra-hot IC Title match before it.
The match went long — more than 25 minutes — and I think that actually helped it near the end. The crowd got into the finish, which saw Ambrose give Jericho the Dirty Deeds onto a pile of thumbtacks. That was a great visual, with Ambrose actually taking some of the tacks in his own face as part of the process.
The only downside to this match was that Mitch the Potted Plant, which was perched on top of the cage as one of its weapons, for some reason wasn’t utilized at all.
7. Charlotte beat Natalya in a submission match to retain the Women’s Title
For the finish of this match, Natalya was distracted not by Ric Flair, who was banned from ringside, but by Dana Brooke who was on the stage dressed as Ric Flair.
That finish doesn’t make Natalya look very good. It leaves the storyline open for another match, which is good news because Charlotte and Natalya have good chemistry, but the babyface getting outsmarted isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially when it’s someone as loved by the crowd as Natalya.
Charlotte and Natalya seemed pressed for time. It might work best for this match to main event a Raw rather than take place on pay-per-view. It would be a nice change of pace for the women to get a main event spot on the main show as well. They booked the contract signing as the show-closing angle, and did something similar last summer as well, so closing with a women’s match shouldn’t be out of the question. Given the overrun, WWE could invest 15-20 minutes.
8. Roman Reigns beat A.J. Styles in an Extreme Rules match to retain the WWE World Hvt. Title
From now on, finishers should be known only as “finishers,” because a finishing move, in the traditional sense, no longer exists in WWE.
Reigns kicked out of, if memory serves me correctly, three Styles Clashes. 20 years ago, that would have been the death of AJ Styles. In 2016, it’s just a hope spot in another monthly main event.
This match went a bit more than 20 minutes, and it was quite good, despite what Reigns detractors may try to tell you. Styles really helps accentuate Reigns and if they run with Rollins as his next opponent, which seems likely, that trend should continue, although it won’t help the narrative that Reigns is being “carried” by a better worker.
Looking ahead, the dynamic between Styles and The Club should continue to be evolved. This likely winds up with Balor debuting alongside Gallows and Anderson. From there, I’d project that Balor goes over in a feud with Styles this summer and then maybe challenges Reigns for the WWE Title in the fall, trying to do something “that AJ couldn’t do.”