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After claiming that his ONLY path to WrestleMania was to win the Elimination Chamber match on Sunday; John Cena managed to finagle his way into another opportunity. At Fastlane, Cena will have a chance to win the WWE Championship, which if he does, would theoretically mean that he is guaranteed a spot on the WrestleMania card. The whole storyline of Cena desperate to find away onto the card has been bizarre; first of all EVERYONE gets on the WrestleMania card, even if it is just in the battle royal. It is insulting to the fans that Cena is suggesting there is no possible way for him to be on the show, unless he is the world champion or he challenges The Undertaker. Additionally, this is somehow a problem that only effects John Cena. While very few performers in WWE currently have guaranteed matches at WrestleMania (really only Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey, Alexa Bliss, Asuka, AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura) Cena is the only one seemingly worried that he isn't going to be on the card. Big stars like Randy Orton, Seth Rollins and Braun Strowman are going on with their business without a care in the world; yet Cena is panicking.
The fact is, Cena is going to have a prominent match at WrestleMania; we just don't know what it is. Storylines and media reports indicate it can be one of three options; a match against The Undertaker, a match against a returning Rey Mysterio, or a match involving the WWE Championship (either he wins it at Fastlane or he gets a rematch for the title at WrestleMania.) Let us take a look at all three potential options:
Cena for the WWE Championship
Naturally, the storyline of John Cena going for his "record-setting" 17th world title reign is a big story WWE could promote heading into WrestleMania. So if he doesn't win at Fastlane but does manage to get another match, this would be a big deal. Some fans would scoff at the idea of Cena sliding in on the Styles/Nakamura match, which promises to be one of the best WWE matches of the year, but the fact is Cena's involvement would make the match a bigger deal. The potential would also be there for Nakamura to pin Cena at WrestleMania to win the title, which would make Nakamura look more like a legitimate star to fans who may not follow the product that closely, but do tune into WrestleMania.
If the The Undertaker cannot wrestle, and the match with Rey Mysterio falls through, then a steady backup plan would be to have Cena involved in the WWE Championship match. Cena's additional star power would help the match stand-out and bit for a SmackDown side that is likely to be dwarfed at WrestleMania by RAW, which already possesses the two biggest matches on the show in the Universal Championship match and the Rousey tag team match. Maybe Cena wins his 17th world title; or maybe Nakamura or Styles gets to pin Cena at WrestleMania. I don't think it would be the worst thing in the world.
Cena vs Mysterio
Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated reported on Monday night that Mysterio was backstage and the plan was to have Mysterio return and face Cena at WrestleMania. To me, this feels like a B-level replacement for Cena vs The Undertaker. Instead of giving the fans an iconic clash between two babyfaces that haven't had a feud in decades, WWE is calling in the backup career babyface to replace The Undertaker. I don't have a problem with Mysterio returning and these two could work an interesting program, but to me it seems like more of WWE over-relying on part time wrestlers to increase the star power of WrestleMania.
I have been saying for years that WWE does not promote the active, full-time wrestlers at WrestleMania enough, instead relying on stars in their 40s or even 50s to come in and carry the biggest show of the year. We are a month away from WrestleMania and WWE is still counting on a 53 year old Undertaker to hobble down the ramp to buoy the biggest show of the year. Instead of trotting another star in Mysterio whose career is winding down; why not take this opportunity to put someone new over? A colleague of mine suggested a storyline where some younger star WWE is high on interrupts Cena when he is making a speech about not having a WrestleMania match? Make it Balor, or Baron Corbin, or Elias, or really anyone under 40, and have Cena blow them off, saying they are not on his level. Eventually they attack him and Cena agrees to the match, and does the big J-O-B at WrestleMania. Boom; that star you were trying to push is now getting a big boost on the biggest stage (which means the most fans are paying attention) and will do more for business long term than Mysterio ever would.
Cena vs The Undertaker
If you remember my review of WrestleMania 33, you will know that I was not high on The Undertaker closing the show against Roman Reigns (my headline was "WrestleMania Review; That Was Really Sad". Here is what I wrote about The Undertaker:
The real problem I have with this match is that it shouldn't have ever come to this. The Undertaker deserved to leave wrestling with his head held high after a good match; not after a stinker that the crowd became depressed just watching him struggle. The issue is that Vince McMahon and WWE do not trust any of their younger stars to carry WrestleMania for whatever reason; so this year they relied on two guys over 50 (Goldberg and The Undertaker) that really could not wrestle for longer than five minutes. That is absolutely pathetic for the largest wrestling company in the world with the amount of talent they have to have no faith in any of their promising talent to actually carry the big events. The Undertaker was never capable of having a really good match as the main event this year; but because they have no trust in anybody else, they carted him out there to wrestle a match that he didn't have a chance in succeeding in. He could have had a passable mid-card match that went 7-8 minutes and still lost, but the match wouldn't be remembered for The Undertaker flubbing moves and being completely gassed. He would have been able to leave with a dignified performance, but because WWE doesn't trust their young talent, he was asked to do way to much. Now it looks like they won't be able to go to that well again, so Vince will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to using new talent to headline the shows.
Well some that post has not aged well; since WWE is in fact attempting to go to the well once again and use The Undertaker in a major match this year, where he will be a year older. Like I said above with WWE bringing in Mysterio, they really don't have confidence in enough of the younger guys to give them these major matches, so they end up dragging out the carcasses of legends to carry their premier event.
You know what though? As short-sighted as it seems, from a business perspective it is obvious why WWE wants 'Taker back. On Monday Cena mentioned that he was challenging The Undertaker and the crowd went crazy. Just judging by that reaction the fans are more excited for that match than anything else on the card, even if all indicators point to that match absolutely sucking. To me, I don't think WWE is ever going to have big, difference-making stars again if they refuse to bury the old guys once and for all, and give those premium positions on the WrestleMania card to younger stars. Part of the reason The Undertaker's name got that kind of a pop was because none of the younger guys are ever positioned to be as important as The Undertaker; with the exception of Reigns who just isn't talented enough to take that kind of mantle from 'Taker. I personally vote No on seeing The Undertaker wrestle again because I know what that is going to entail; but I also think I'm in the minority thinking that.
One last note on Cena and that is how weird his last year has been. He has spent a lot of it pursuing other interests and didn't spend a ton of time on WWE TV. When he was used for big events; he was promoted heavily but was basically a non-factor at all the shows. At WrestleMania, he wrestled a forgettable match against The Miz which was really only there to set up a reality TV special. At SummerSlam he wrestled a boring match against Baron Corbin that opened the show. He followed that with what should have been a massive feud with Roman Reigns at No Mercy, but they had the one match and then basically never mentioned it again. At Survivor Series he joined Team SmackDown and was a non-factor; just like he would be two months later in the Royal Rumble. At Elimination Chamber, he came and went without much fanfare. For a guy that was just so consistent in being a major force in WWE for over a decade, he just hasn't been the same over the last year or so. I don't know what that means for WrestleMania, but it will be interesting to see if they continue to essentially phase him out in 2018.
Elimination Chamber Review
RAW's Elimination Chamber was an okay overall show that was built around only a couple matches of real importance. Nothing on the match was bad, but they also didn't blow me away with anything spectacular. The things that standout on the show were that WWE tried to push their top babyfaces for WrestleMania while also trying to keep their heels strong, which was trying to have your cake and eat it too. That part of the show came off as clumsy; but they may have made up for it in the Rousey segment, which looked liked it was heading for disaster before being salvaged and ended up being a big positive for the night.
Men's Elimination Chamber Match: ****
The story of the match was protecting Strowman and turning him into the star of the show, but somehow not letting him win the match. Strowman eliminated everyone except Reigns, who pinned him cleanly. Strowman than crushed Reigns inside the chamber and re-established his dominance. After the match, it made it seem like Strowman was this unstoppable monster and Reigns was lucky to beat him. If the goal was to get people excited about Reigns vs Brock at WrestleMania, it failed because the booking made the viewer more excited for Strowman vs Lesnar than Reigns vs Lesnar.
The Strowman vs Roman debate got really interesting on Sunday. I think Reigns is more versatile and a better performer than Strowman; who is limited in the ring and what they can do with his character. However, Strowman has outperformed Reigns as the biggest full-time babyface for about eight months now, and consistently gets the biggest cheers from the audience. The fact is if WWE booked the chamber match so that Reigns took a dozen finishers and pinned five different men, the crowd would be disgusted. Strowman did it and the fans were chanting for MORE destruction. Strowman feels a lot more organic than Reigns; and the fans buy him more as a top guy thanks to the careful booking WWE has done to protect him; as well as his underrated charisma and physical talents.
The rest of the match was carried by strong performances by Balor, Rollins, Reigns and even to a degree The Miz. When Strowman wasn't destroying everyone, Balor and Rollins were working fast and keeping the match from dragging. I'm glad they put the padding down on the outside of the ring because those steel grates seemed really dangerous to take bumps on. It wasn't the best chamber match and didn't have the craziest spots, but everyone worked hard and the crowd was really into Strowman, even if they didn't get the result they wanted.
Women's Chamber Match: ***
A decent match that went for a really long time. It was a little questionable at the beginning when Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose were double-teaming Bayley and yet they couldn't put her away. Instead they were the first two pinned and didn't do much in the match; reaffirming to fans that they are not a group to be taken seriously. Everyone else in the match was pretty good; with Mickie James and Bayley standing out to me. They continue to tease the Bayley vs Banks divide, which looks like something that will happen at WrestleMania.
The finish had Bliss going over strong; which is how they should have booked it if she was going to win. Bliss is either going to face Nia Jax or Asuka at WrestleMania, both of whom have the reputation of being someone that is going to destroy her if they get into the ring together. Bliss needed to look dangerous as a wrestler to make the match work and they did put her over here. The big spot with Bliss hitting the Twisted Bliss off the top of the pod, but Banks basically no-selling it and transitioning into the Bank Statement was odd; but other than that it was a solid first effort for the women inside the chamber.
Ronda Rousey Segment
This got off to a rocky start with Rousey coming out and looking like, completely incompetent at speaking and full-filling some of WWE's worst fears that her charisma wouldn't translate to wrestling. However, once Angle got involved and the crowd was very kind to Rousey, cheering for her a lot when she was at a lost for words and getting her through the segment. I'm not so sure having Angle, who is this regal and defined character of legitimacy in WWE, being this tattletale goofball is the best use of his ability, but it worked for this segment. Spilling the beans on Triple H and Stephanie really got the crowd into the segment, and Rousey dropping Triple H through the table got a big pop. I think it is going to be kind of a slow-start with Rousey as they don't ask her to do to much; but between this segment and the one the next night on RAW, I think they are off to a good start.
Apollo and Titus O'Neil vs The Bar: **1/2
Kind of a basic match that the crowd never got into, probably because they never thought Apollo and O'Neil could win. That tends to happen when on TV all of your victories appear to be flukes. They wrestled the match wisely, with Apollo doing most of the work and O'Neil just coming in for the hot tags. The tag division has taken a bit of a blow on RAW, with Jordan out injured and The Revival and Gallows and Anderson both positioned below the title picture. A possible next opponent could be the Hardy's; as Jeff should be returning from injury soon.
Nia Jax vs Asuka: **1/4
This was similar to Strowman vs Reigns in that Jax dominated the whole match, only to lose in the end to Asuka, and than Jax killed Asuka after the match. It made Asuka, whose aura is that she is this Goldberg-like unstoppable machine, look like someone who was lucky to win the match. What is the point of Asuka winning if the story is going to be be that Jax was clearly the more dominant force? Again, this is WWE trying to push a top babyface without having their monster heel look weak, but there are ways to do that other than just having them dominant the match and lose, and then kill the babyface.
Bray Wyatt vs Matt Hardy: **1/2
The crowd didn't care at all about this match, with various other chants overtaking the match. That isn't a good sign for either guy, particularly Hardy, whose character is kind of all about getting the crowd involved and if they are not, he just comes across as a lame and poorly-acted gimmick. That being said, the match wasn't bad and both guys worked hard to try and get he crowd into it, but they were not having it.
Must Watch Matches:
Beer City Bruiser vs Trent vs Dalton Castle: **** - ROH Honor Rising Night Two
YAMATO, BxB Hulk and Flamita vs Masato Yoshino, Ben-K and Naruki Doi vs T-Hawk, Eita and El Lindaman: ****1/2 - Dragon Gate Road to Kotoka Final Tag 5
Kzy vs Masaaki Mochizuki: ****3/4 - Dragon Gate Road to Kotoka Final Tag 5
This was a great match between Kzy, who is a younger wrestler in Dragon Gate who had been known as a kind of comedy act, and Mochizuki, who is a veteran well-versed in the purest form of strong style, and is known for his stiff kicks. Kzy really shows that he is a legitimate contender for the Open the Dream Gate Title (Dragon Gate's version of the world title) by pushing Mochizuki to his limit. Mochizuki is an unbelievably good performer for someone nearing 50; and his conditioning late in this match is pretty impressive. They do some unorthodox things at the end of this match and it ends up working really well; the crowd was legitimately jumping out of their seats for the near-falls.