Seth Rollins vs Braun Strowman vs Roman Reigns vs Elias vs John Cena vs The Miz vs Finn Balor
Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, Arizona, United States
(reviewed 02/20/2018) In wrestling, what’s the point of going long? Generally it’s to relay a narrative of some sort. Historically, long matches were the norm, as they sold the idea of wrestling as a legitimate competition of athletic struggle, a theme that persisted throughout the first seven or more decades of wrestling’s history. Likewise the longform match allowed for a more layered and nuanced story in the ring, as strategies and struggles played out in full over the space of several dozen minutes. Towards the end of the century lengthy matches—most notably the sixty minute title match draw—were increasingly used to establish an up-and-comer or a local star as being on the same level as a more talented or more prominent wrestler. As in-ring styles shifted more and more through the 1980s and 1990s these lengthy matches became less and less common, with the scant few examples during this time becoming the stuff of legend (Flair/Steamboat, 04/20/1991, Bret/Shawn, Kawada/Kobashi). In the new millennium most major promotions shied away from such lengthy matches, with a few notable exceptions, and by and large they remained in the hands of independent-level performers. These groups used long matches to tell complicated, interweaving in-ring stories or to sell the idea that their product was closer in style to wrestling from the 70s and 80s and therefore of a higher quality than the products of more popular promotions. The common theme here is selling a narrative, whether that be a fictional story containing larger-than-life characters or the idea that a certain performer, a certain style, or the sport of wrestling itself is legitimate.
What, then, is the narrative of this match? For the first 65 minutes or so it’s the idea of Seth Rollins’ ascension or perhaps his re-ascension. I’m hardly a regular WWE viewer these days but even in my limited viewing it’s been clear that over the last year or so Rollins has been increasingly deemphasized as a main eventer such as he had been for most of the preceding three years. In the last few weeks the company has apparently decided to put him back in the spotlight and began the extra-kayfabe process of legitimizing him in the eyes of the fans once more, something that you could argue may or may not have been necessary in the first place.
Does this match succeed in re-establishing Rollins? I’m inclined to say no. Part of that’s due to the fact that I don’t think he necessarily needed it, so you can’t succeed in establishing what’s already been established. Moreover I don’t think the way in which they try to accomplish this needless feat is all that effective. Rollins is in the ring for the first 65 minutes of this match, during which time he defeats the company’s current top dog and a former friend by a combination of luck and quick thinking, defeats that man’s more talented and more desperate predecessor by way of sheer determination, and is eventually cut down by a crafty up-and-comer who was in the right place at the right time. On paper that sounds great but in execution it’s not such smooth sailing.
Rollins and Reigns kick things off and while they do well enough to establish the themes of the match they’re not the most compelling characters or people known for being able to fill time. It’s readily apparent that they’re taking it easy since Rollins still has 45 minutes to wrestle after this and when they’re not allowed to go whole hog with their goofy finisher trading it’s clearly too much to ask them to be enjoyable for 20 minutes. Reigns is the better of the two in this setting, as his bristling at Rollins’ offense, occasional trash talking, and eventual friendly acceptance of defeat feels natural and interesting, but it only adds up to so much in the end. The following Cena vs Rollins portion is far better, being that Cena is able to milk so much out of simple headlocks and lingering stares. Even in a backstage promo later on he’s far more interesting in calmly stating that he’s juggling a lot of responsibilities right now than anyone else in this match is during their most exciting series of spots. He elects to wear down his younger opponent for a long while, understanding that this sort of a match is a marathon, but before long Rollins picks up the speed and the last ten minutes or so of this chunk of the match is a shootout with these two men trading big moves back and forth. It’s hardly the most overwrought finisherfest I’ve seen in recent years but it’s certainly not good and feels like a concerted step back after the far more entertaining preamble. Finally the Elias vs Rollins sequence is quite short, being only nine minutes or so, and it consists mostly of the drifter stomping down on Rollins and going after his knee, eventually catching him with a pair of big moves that are enough to put him away after 65 minutes of wrestling.
I wouldn’t say Rollins is ever at the top of his game during these 65 minutes. I’ve never really been a fan of the guy but he’s notably less snappy and forceful when doing moves here than he usually is. Notably he’s also sloppier here than I recall him being in recent years, with misplaced superkicks, floppy enzuigiris, and looking lost in lock ups. He’s not doing a whole lot on the other end of the offense either. At some point during the Reigns segment, Rollins lands vaguely funny on his leg doing a blockbuster off the middle rope and continues to sell it more and more as the match progresses, with his opponents eventually going after the leg in earnest. His leg selling is fairly mundane stuff and when combined with a bunch of exhaustion selling that begins about ten minutes into the run with Reigns, most of Rollins’ time in this match is spent either shaking out a leg, laying around, or doing sub-par moves.
Far more detrimental than any of that, however, is the general nature of how WWE tells stories. Recently I watched Daichi Hashimoto and Ryuichi Kawakami wrestle in Big Japan. Both of those guys are young men in a promotion that has struggled to establish its younger roster as meaningful contenders compared to more experienced stars, to the point that when Kawakami had a title shot on the biggest show of the year in 2017 and when Daichi eventually won BJW’s top prize neither of those matches felt particularly notable. I’ve never really been a fan of Kawakami and I’ve actively disliked Daichi for most of his career, but when these two went at it in a somewhat minor Korakuen semi-main event I was blown away. It was two guys going out there and grabbing the brass ring for themselves in a straightforward match without any pomp and circumstance. This gauntlet is the very opposite of that, with 65 minutes of a mediocre passion play narrated by a trio of human cue cards and featuring all the subtlety of Zack Snyder. On top of what is a fairly middling hour-long performance, it’s the fact that every aspect of this show is screaming “YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO CARE ABOUT ROLLINS NOW” that causes this match to fail as a means of re-establishing him. That overbearing inauthenticity does not make me buy into a character and his struggles and instead turns me away from anything interesting and endearing he might accidentally do in the process.
The thing is, the match continues on without Rollins. He’s eliminated 65 minutes into a 107 match. The final 40+ minutes of this match are nothing, really, in the greater scheme of things. Balor and Elias wrestle around for a while, with Balor’s size and an arm injury working against him before he’s able to turn things around with his explosive offense. Miz then continues to target Balor’s arm and uses every cheap trick in the book to send him packing before Braun stomps his way into the match and runs roughshod over the movie star to eventually come out on top. None of it’s explicitly bad or anything, with Rollins’ worst moments in the first half being far worse than anything here in the back end, but it doesn’t serve to further any particular stories or themes between any of these four men. It’s 40 minutes of a few guys who are booked on an upcoming PPV interacting a bit and selling the appeal of the big show. Again, it’s not overtly bad, but 40 minutes of that all in one go and following sixty minutes of an unsuccessful attempt at re-making a main eventer makes it feel incredibly unappealing.
This match has a point, I guess, and that’s the bare minimum that a match of this length ought to have. But for some baffling reason the point plays out halfway through after failing to accomplish what it set out to do and then continues on with a half-hearted attempt at advertising for another 40 minutes. What’s good here is good and is mostly isolated to Cena’s segment, which itself isn’t perfect and is bookended by two far inferior sequences, but I can’t with good conscience call this a good match when half of the first 60 minutes is underwhelming and the entire last 40 minutes are completely unnecessary. Don’t waste your time with this match. Go watch the RAW women’s gauntlet from last year instead. It’s ten times the match this could ever hope to be with half the talent and a third of the bloat.