Professional wrestling is often viewed as more entertainment product than sport, but fans of World Wrestling Entertainment may take issue with this statement. If the crowd response at the WWE event held on Feb. 19 was any indication, many of the fans in attendance find that authenticity comes second to the simple pleasures of theatrically cartoonish violence.
The WWE has always occupied a strange space in the world of entertainment. The company has the look and presentation of sport but the legitimacy of competition has always been absent. Instead, the company has chosen to focus on soap-opera-style story telling with friendships, rivalries and vendettas playing out through campy multi-week storylines.
At its best, WWE represents an entire universe of characters contained in a single wrestling ring — a fantasy world where brave, steroid-abusing heroes prevail over cowardly, steroid-abusing villains. At its worst, it becomes a humorless, nonsensical slog where month-long storylines fizzle out into anti-climactic resolutions.
The WWE Live: Road to WrestleMania event, held at The SaskTel Centre, focused on quick matches with a minimalist stance on dialogue and storytelling. Both the WWE Intercontinental Championship and the SmackDown Tag Team Championship titles were successfully defended at this event.
The matches themselves were inconsequential and predictable, but an emphasis on clear-cut matches that pitted fan-favorite wrestlers against gimmicky villains allowed for the craft behind the performance to shine through.
The first match of the event was between two fan favorites, Dolph Ziggler and Apollo Crews. The match between Ziggler and Crews was the closest thing to a legitimate toss-up of the night, with no clear winner being telegraphed ahead of time. The fight consisted of highly choreographed acrobatics and uncomfortably long stretches of time where the combatants lay on the mat, pretending to be hurt or tired. After around 15 suspenseful minutes of fake-outs and reversals, Crews managed to pin Ziggler and the match was over.
The second match was a bizarre tag-team showdown that pitted Heath Slater and Rhyno against the two-man wrestling team, The Ascension. The Ascension are visually inspired by Illuminati conspiracy theories and Norwegian Black Metal. In a particularly surreal moment, Slater entered the ring dressed in a t-shirt that read “I got kids,” which was met with a chant of “He’s got kids” from the crowd.
The juxtaposition of Slater, whose entire gimmick is fatherhood, against the occult-themed Ascension was jarring to say the least. The match itself quickly devolved into Viktor, the larger member of Ascension, attempting to obstruct Slater from tagging in his partner. The match ended after Rhyno successfully pinned Viktor.
Other fights of the night included a match between Mojo Rawley and Aiden English. English, who comprises one half of the tag team duo the Vaudevillians, was on brand, getting in several cheap shots while his tag team partner distracted the referee. Rawley, whose entire gimmick could be summed up with the phrase “sentient can of Mountain Dew Code Red,” ended up winning the match.
The first of the night’s two title defense matches came in the form of a tag-team match between American Alpha, two incredibly angry men who just really love America, and Breezango, a two-man wrestling team who greatly resembled male strippers. This was the first important match of the night and also the absolute lowest point. The ensuing match was an embarrassing slapstick comedy routine which saw American Alpha successfully defend their belt.
The second title fight was three-way bout between AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose and The Miz for the Intercontinental Championship. Both The Miz and Styles were introduced as arrogant, showboating narcissists, while Ambrose filled the role of the heroic, working-class man. The match was a mix of incredibly serious showmanship and inspired — albeit corny — fight choreography. In the end, a stumbling, punch-drunk Ambrose defended his title after pinning both of the other wrestlers.
WWE Live focused on “actual” wrestling instead of overwrought melodramatic storytelling. Even though the matches were of little consequence to the overarching status quo of the company, it served as a fun introduction for casual observers to the surreal world of professional wrestling.
Photo: Ryan Cadrain / Supplied