Fyter Fest Thrills, SmackDown Shines | Takes, Takes & More Takes #22

Well folks, it’s been awhile. Four months ago, this series abruptly ended after what I thought was a decent little existence. Simply put, I couldn’t keep watching the wrestling at that rate, and that may be the case moving forward. If so, this’ll be a short-lived comeback but with fans returning, it feels like a good time to start fresh. NXT, AEW and SmackDown are the focus today so with that in mind, let’s get this show on the road, quite literally.


Since the rehiring of Samoa Joe, I’ve made my own return to NXT. No longer losing a wrestling ratings war, NXT’s move to Tuesday has been a positive step critically, even if a lateral move commercially. I do agree with the consensus though, that this is a good show that’s already benefitting from standing alone each week. At times, I still struggle with an overarching emotional investment but there’s barely a babyface in sight, so that feels inevitable regardless of their new night.

Either way, I can always embrace a wrestling match to start a wrestling show and NXT delivered that here, giving Dakota Kai and Ember Moon some time to set the tone. I feel like I’ve seen this match a lot but Kai and Moon are honestly two of my personal favorite television workers right now. That may sound hyperbolic but I really do think the world of both, just incredibly watchable and able to produce sound matches of this length without exhausting me.

Now without Shotzi Blackheart, Moon’s safety net is gone and admittedly, I do fear for her. To me, she’s a prime candidate for the classic NXT heel turn and I’m just not sure that’s what this brand needs. Then again, perhaps it’ll be more feasible when/if Kai and NXT Champion Raquel Gonzalez split. Ideally, Kai chases Gonzalez as a babyface but whatever form or fashion they choose, that programme feels inevitable after Dakota’s win here. Moon will always be valuable, I just hope that creative has her back.

Speaking of Gonzalez, she’s now set for at least a mini-programme with Xia Li because again, babyfaces, who needs them? The match sounds like an interesting case study at least, a real look at what those two obviously talented women can do without a clear leader involved. I’m intrigued, even if from a more analytical perspective than anything tangible. The women’s division is in transition right now, losing three names last week and apparently gaining Mandy Rose in return. Frankly, I’m very much for this as a trend.

Some talent just gets stagnant on the main roster and stylistically, RAW and SmackDown are too similar to make a shift matter. NXT feels like a genuine clean slate though, especially for Rose, who never really had a proper run on the brand. Rose is someone that clearly, they want to use but it’s just never really worked in my opinion. The raw ingredients are there but not quite to the extent necessary, she’s not incompetent by any means, just lacking a standout skill-set based her main roster usage at least.

Elsewhere, a logical direction was taken with the NXT North American Title, as Legado del Fantasma headed in Hit Row’s direction. This makes sense on numbers alone but again, I have questions. Are we doing an actual babyface turn for Hit Row here, because that’s what should probably happen. Look, ‘Swerve’ is a wonderful villain but this is a money act, just embrace it and try to get something over. The shades of grey stuff remains my biggest issue with this product, though I’m admittedly excited for that eventual match.

The NXT Breakout Tournament got underway also, as Duke Hudson defeated Ikemen Jiro in a pretty short affair. Personally, I wouldn’t have started this tournament with a virtual showcase match, but that’s a bigger picture thing. Am happy for Duke Hudson regardless, who was over a year removed from the ring. Then Brendan Vink, Hudson was a brief RAW regular, teaming with Shane Thorne under the tutelage of MVP. With a big frame, Hudson jumps off the page, armed with a unique charisma too.

Hudson can talk and has a palpable confidence, but it’s not traditional wrestler stuff. He’s almost dry, bringing a different delivery and no, I don’t just mean his accent, which also rules. Simply put, he was an intriguing signing, an intriguing add to RAW and now, an intriguing piece of this tournament. I doubt he’ll win it, but this victory alone suggests that there’s some sort of plan, which bodes well if nothing else. I do worry about these ‘prospects’ though, as the main event scene seems so set in place.

Speaking of such, Adam Cole still isn’t going anywhere and indeed, remains completely miscast as a heel. I know, I know, it’s annoying and you want me to move on but seriously, know your viewer. The NXT audience loves Adam Cole and after such a sustained stint as top heel, that may as well be embraced. Cole still stands out on this roster and for all his faults, that’d probably be the case in any promotion, on any brand. Build around him as the lead protagonist I say, at least that’s fresh.

Finally, Karrion Kross retained in the main event, vanquishing genuine contender Johnny Gargano. A title change seemed possible here but in the end, Gargano was a mere afterthought, as Kross left Joe laying to close the show. I actually liked the match though, able to produce an engaging title tilt without having to fill half an hour along the way. That helped Gargano as much as Kross, simplifying things and getting right to business. It was a very simple match really, with Gargano playing the de facto babyface.

Though it’s a distant memory now, few are better at that, fighting from underneath and sprinkling hope spots throughout. The Kross saga fascinates me, as he’s not even uh, bad? I mean, he’s not particularly good I guess but like, he’s mechanically fine, just kind of flat. That’s whatever, but he’s now been framed on-screen as a bell to bell disaster and with this audience, that’s hard to shake. I feel for him really, as this level of skill can be worked with, it’s not Kross’ fault that he’s immediately won the title, twice!

Nonetheless, Samoa Joe is seemingly next up for him and that’s exciting news, I think. I mean, I’m excited anyway, very excited in fact. To me, a return to NXT signaled the likely end of Joe’s in-ring career but this angle suggests otherwise. I think that Joe has been used rather well thus far but as a wrestler, his value is obviously multiplied. Now, another title reign? I’m less sure. Joe is wonderful, an all-timer but he’s been NXT Champion and going backwards will seldom lead anything forward.

I’ll watch either way, of course, as Joe is king but you get my point. It’s time for a new era in NXT or at the very least, fresh ideas for familiar faces. Joe is Joe, he’s an attraction certainly but a centerpiece in 2021? Probably not the best placement. I enjoyed NXT though, it’s consistently good and slowly but surely, they’re earning my attention.


For over a year, AEW was operating without its special ingredient. That was easy to forget at times, especially as Dynamite went from strength-to-strength but after two weeks on the road, it’s impossible to imagine a product without these crowds. Across the country, wrestling fans are just desperate for this release, infinitely more invested than they even were before the promotion’s ‘pandemic era.’ The roster is stronger, the matches are neater, the promos are better, and the result is great television. This week in particular, those factors produced an all-time episode of Dynamite.

As all shows should, it started with Wild Thing and somehow retained that pace, just two hours of nothing but hits. Moxley’s opener with Karl Anderson shouldn’t be ignored though, an engaging TV bout reminiscent of Anderson’s many G1 undercard bouts. Moxley is just special, bringing a raw energy to this show that’s not possible with anyone else. The entrance is just icing on the cake really, the final touch to one of wrestling’s great thrills. Next week, Moxley’s got Lance Archer in a Texas Death Match too, so he’s certainly making up for lost time.

Speaking of such, Ricky Starks is back, and he still feels as certain for stardom as ever. He and Brian Cage produced an exciting bout that in opting against a surprise, actually surprised me. The story throughout has been that Cage is distancing himself from Team Taz and indeed, they finished the job for him, helping Starks and switching ‘The Machine’ babyface. This feud aside, I don’t really know about Cage’s usefulness in that role, especially as a singles. Perhaps Jake can bring him and Archer together, as the latter’s own direction feels in doubt after Wednesday.

Starks staying heel is interesting, as I did feel that for the sake of balance, he could be used on the other side. As a cocky, but charming babyface, Starks felt like a natural fit opposite MJF or Ethan Page, but this route definitely helps Team Taz. This way, the faction maintains its variety and Powerhouse Hobbs can now fully fill the position of group monster. Elsewhere, Cody Rhodes is back apparently, as reliant on fans as we all recalled. This feud with Malakai Black is off to an encouraging start, just a matter of keeping things simple.

AEW has my trust in that sense too, with ‘Hangman’ Page’s pursuit of Kenny Omega continuing to set the standard for modern wrestling storytelling. This is one of the industry’s great arcs, and the emotional weight of Dark Order’s involvement is truly staggering. That act isn’t just in this story, they are its heart and soul, bringing the fans to life with their support of ‘Hangman.’ The audience is just ready for this, they are ready for Page as champion and when that match arrives, the big fight feel should be striking.

This show always seemed set to deliver, but Christian’s renewed rivalry with Matt Hardy was a common critique. That’s fair enough but in reality, they just had a good wrestling match, one that the audience thoroughly enjoyed. It’s amazing what happens when two pros are protected enough and then left to their own devices, truly shocking stuff. Once again though, this show may have been a home run, but it was still light on development for the women’s division. Yuka Sakazaki vs. Penelope Ford was enjoyable enough, but Britt Baker remains the focus.

At least this week, that resulted in something good, as Baker cut a simple in-ring promo that breathed life into this feud. I’ve long thought that at times, fans are slightly hyperbolic with Baker’s ability on the microphone but no doubt, this one fit the bill. Baker spoke with great conviction and the content was good also, just a strong short segment to steady the ship after a few rough weeks. Even still, I’d like to see a secondary women’s feud in some form or fashion as without that, this thing can only climb so high.

Finally, Darby Allin and Ethan Page provided the perfect conclusion to their violent conflict. Some dynamics just work, and this is one of them, two rising stars simply made for each other. Allin’s passion for bumping like a wild man brings something seemingly psychotic out of Page, adding an edge to his ‘All Ego’ persona. Page is a player, and this feud should be just the start, but I must say, it’ll be hard to make him look as dangerous as Allin has as of late. It’s something special, a feud that could and should be revisited through the years.

After this, Allin’s next step should be interesting, as history suggests that he and Sting have to find another pair to fight at All Out. Personally, I almost expected a student vs. teacher direction but Allin’s victory here makes that even more unlikely, so I guess we’ll see. Either way, this was an all-time outing for AEW, one of the greatest editions of Dynamite yet. Next week looks strong too, even if not quite to this level but special names aside, this just feels like a new norm really, simply extreme examples.

This roster is such that the quality should be consistently high, especially with their almost rotational approach to wrestling television. Simply put, enjoy the ride folks, it rules.


After over a year without live crowds, the blue brand was back in front of fans this week. The first step of WWE’s long-awaited return to touring, SmackDown was a triumphant occasion, also concluding the build to Money in the Bank. As expected based on the advertisements alone, it was a good show but with this energy? It felt like much more than that. After a hilariously understated welcoming by Vince McMahon, an onslaught of entrances occurred, preparing to open the show with a blockbuster 6-man tag.

This ten minutes or so stole the show in truth, and I don’t even mean that as a criticism of the rest. The whole thing was truly epic, a collection of ‘moments’ that after everything, felt truly earned. Reigns was out first, setting the tone for an electricity that peaked with Edge, entering to an unfathomable reaction. For all the talk of fickle crowds swaying opinion, Edge was a case of the opposite, suffering from the ThunderDome’s silence. Regardless of creative, this guy was always getting cheered, whining or not.

Edge probably shouldn’t beat Roman, like ever but his overness is such that I’m no longer dismissing it. Unnecessary? Yes. Short-sighted? Probably but a complete misstep? No, the audience suggests otherwise. Either way, this was a very good 6-man tag, with Rey and Dom Mysterio taking Edge’s side opposite The Bloodline. Mysterio continues to connect with Jimmy and Jey as perfectly as you’d expect, and that tag title tilt is a potential show-stealer on Sunday, even on the pre-show. This was about Reigns and Edge though, with the latter eventually standing tall.

That particular degree of momentum just wasn’t being sustained in this show’s current state, but it had a segment left in it yet. As was widely hinted at beforehand, Finn Balor is back on the ‘main roster,’ returning to SmackDown and silencing Sami Zayn. Obviously, Balor is a wonderful talent and on the babyface side, the rich get richer. Reigns has always had interesting opponents available and Balor may now top that list, especially with their history. That’s been a magical pairing before, so I can only imagine its potential now.

Also, for all the criticisms of NXT’s most recent form, Balor is a credit to it. That brand allowed Balor to refresh his persona, reminding the world of his ability and rejuvenating his own brand in the process. That should be far more common than it is, even if Balor is an extreme example, considering his skill and popularity. WWE has the structure to utilize a global territory system and yet, their desperation to keep everyone on the red and blue brands result in mass overexposure. Keep things fluid, it’s best for all involved.

Inevitably, things did dip some from there, transitioning to another tag match between the champions and the team of Shotzi and Nox. As far as I know, Natalya and Tamina lost this exact match last week so heading into Money in the Bank, a match they’re inexplicably in, a repeat felt puzzling. I do understand the urge to feature the NXT call-ups in front of live crowds though, as this particular audience seemed mostly uninitiated. Unfortunately, even in victory, Shotzi and Nox were an afterthought. The whole match was really, with Liv Morgan and Zelina Vega on commentary.

On the bright side, Morgan’s reaction was very encouraging and though it’s nothing new, they certainly have something with her. Morgan connects and is genuinely likeable, now earning the more cynical viewer’s respect over the years too. People like Liv, and quite naturally root for her which silly as it sounds, is increasingly rare in this division. I don’t think that Morgan needs to win on Sunday as that doesn’t seem like the story to tell here but based on the current line-up, I’m struggling to see a stronger alternative.

Frankly, I don’t think the actual winner is even booked yet. I personally expect either Doudrop to take out Alexa Bliss, or Sonya Deville to replace Liv Morgan. In the former scenario, a Becky Lynch return feels in play but then again, perhaps it’s just these eight. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a talentless group, far from it. Unfortunately though, it is an uninteresting line-up as sadly, most of the performers involved are simply positioned poorly on weekly TV. If it stays as is, Morgan jumps off the page as an ideal victor.

Whoever wins, they aren’t likely to dethrone Bianca Belair anytime soon. Receiving an absolute superstar reaction, Belair felt like a face of the company level figure, just exuding charisma. Belair gets better every time I see her but credit to Carmella, the challenger in this replacement matchup. For the longest time, I had gripes with Carmella’s in-ring efforts but this year, she appears to have really smoothed out those rough edges. Her bump and feed here was better than ever, showing actual aggression when the time come too.

Together, Belair and Carmella combined for a strong title match, convincing me that a proper programme is worthwhile. Sasha Banks is the obvious choice for SummerSlam though, which will probably take shape next week. Before I move to the main event, it’s worth mentioning Baron Corbin, who was absolutely tremendous here. This shtick is awful silly but I was thoroughly entertained, securing this as Corbin’s peak in my mind, even though I’ve only seen one segment. I like Corbin too, but this was actually good in a way that fleeting multi-man matches aren’t.

That led us to our aforementioned headliner anyway, as Kevin Owens dropped Corbin before the fatal 4-way main event. It was a showcase of SmackDown’s Money in the Bank participants, ultimately meaningless but an exciting sprint nonetheless. Rollins eventually won, which I hope erases him from the shortlist of actual contenders. Look, I’m not going to dance around this situation as it’s simple, Big E should win this match. In fact, Big E should also beat Bobby Lashley at SummerSlam. I’m tired of waiting, it’s been a year now, get on with this before it’s too late.

Regardless, this was a strong show, packed with excitement and feel-good fun. That sounds goofy, but it’s true, the audience was happy and WWE didn’t actively upset them. Three good matches and nothing that offended me, that’s a great night at the office, especially under these circumstances. I will say though, the ThunderDome crowd noise making momentary returns is very bad for my brain, as it results in me fearfully watching the fans, still hiding my many scars from those horrifying screens.

Oh well, very good show, seriously.

Rey Mysterio: Appreciating What We Have

I love Rey Mysterio. It’s a bit embarrassing really, but I’ve conceded this before. Look, no sane human should idolise fake fighters and I’m not here to suggest that Rey is any different but as far as fake fighting goes, he’s King in my view. I think that everyone agrees on Mysterio, he’s not only great but iconic, armed with increasing longevity too. Must say though, I sense that some don’t quite grasp the grandeur of his significance, the lengths that his legacy covers.

He’s incredibly influential but also timeless, setting a standard before perfecting so many other pieces of the performance. As Mysterio’s first WWE stint came to a merciful close in 2015, his career could quite reasonably be split in half. For a decade, Mysterio was the industry’s most spectacular acrobatic, blazing a trail as WCW’s standout Cruiserweight. That division hosted a squad of sparkling skill but on arrival, Mysterio was something a little different. He pushed the boundaries to their limits, the furthest feats, the highest highs.

That’s an impact that commands respect, a memory worth cherishing. In many ways, those times shaped the decades that have followed, as Nitro’s Cruiserweight exploits influenced a generation that’d soon dominate the wrestling landscape. The eras that followed WCW’s demise eventually featured a range of would-be Cruiserweights that were now headline acts. WCW’s fleet of flyers never managed that ascension in their own system but Mysterio was and is one of those names, doing much more than just setting the tone.

That half of Mysterio’s career was very different to the first though. After arriving in WWE, Mysterio adapted, steadily evolving to suit his new surroundings. In bursts, Mysterio was still as stunning as ever but his game had changed, finding a form that’d prove far more sustainable. Mysterio’s magic was now deeper than the physical thrills, deeply rooted in an authentic emotional investment. As the ultimate underdog, Rey was able to make people truly care, adding gravity to his each and every flurry.

Mysterio never felt truly backed by the WWE’s creative forces but his greatness was above that. If anything, it was a fitting side-plot, the giant-slayer that with each and every epic, came closer to slaying the biggest giant of all. He always had a point to prove, a statement to send. Though he may not have fit the mould of any stateside world champion that came before him, Mysterio could be the exception to that rule. His skill-set said so but more than that, his place in the audience’s hearts said so too.

Famously, Mysterio would reach that mountaintop at WrestleMania 22, but it wasn’t quite what it could’ve and probably should’ve been. That didn’t stop Mysterio’s mastery though, returning to form time and time again, producing immense work years later. In 2009 especially, Mysterio was arguably at a personal best in terms of balance, with that chapter or two being the last before his inevitable decline. Those years weren’t as loaded with daring thrillers that’d live forever but the consistency was unparalleled, cementing Mysterio as a historically great television wrestler.

Mysterio was just so watchable, able to find something of substance in the most aimless of offerings. Against uninteresting opponents with uninteresting setups, Mysterio would have interesting matches. They wouldn’t last long in the memory perhaps, not the classic world title epic but even still, such compelling television in a time that bell to bell, wasn’t always rich with that. After a run of that calibre, Mysterio’s time in WWE deserved a better conclusion, instead painfully stumbling to his 2015 departure.

At the time, Mysterio wasn’t inspiring much hope for a career revival. Instead, he was widely considered finished, physically decimated and just a spent force in general. As usual though, Mysterio soon proved otherwise though, rejuvenated in a world tour before eventually returning to WWE in 2018. Weirdly, things felt genuinely different in Mysterio’s case, as though he’d missed a whole generation’s entry. Due to injuries and such, he basically had, inactive for much of his original stay’s final portion.

Now though, Mysterio was ready to right those wrongs, combining with a new crop of talent to create clashes that’d only enhance his legacy. The most obvious opponent being Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas, a third-generation Mexican star that seemed set for stardom. In the end, Mysterio would somehow outlast Andrade within that system but that didn’t stop them from together, producing some of the most electric matches in recent main roster memory. Andrade allowed Mysterio to display something striking, something almost new.

In those matches and honestly, the best bouts since Rey’s return to relevance, he was an incredible combination of his prior-selves. In broad strokes, Mysterio spent one decade as a daredevil and the next as a more traditional, restrained protagonist. That’s an incredible career, certainly but since then, Mysterio has found this mix of the two. Physically, Rey came back with a dynamism that just wasn’t present beforehand, lost along the way as schedule and style had forced him to slow.

Now though, Mysterio was innovating again, doing things that if silhouetted, would’ve seemed like Nitro throwbacks. He still had that emotional connection though also, an innate ability to earn sympathy with the simplest of sell. That’s an incredible blend for any talent at any time but for Rey to find it after already producing over two decades of ground-breaking brilliance, that’s something for the history books. Honestly though, that’s where Mysterio belongs in general at this juncture, even as he continues to produce, adding another highlight each and every month.

In fear of being presumptive, we’re likely in the homestretch of Rey’s in-ring career. I mean, he could prove otherwise, he has before but at 46, it feels as though even in his current form, the end is surely near. Naturally, that forces a sense of clarity when watching someone’s work. It’s hard to ignore the inevitable, difficult to get as lost on the weekly rollercoaster of wrestling television. Instead, everything has this grander meaning, an acknowledgment that this is all worth embracing.

After all, this can’t last forever, we won’t always have Mysterio matches every other Friday. He’s been so accessible for so long that it’s easy to lose sight of that, the reality that the time to enjoy this ride is running out. Though his performances have suggested otherwise for as long as we can remember, Rey Mysterio is human. This isn’t a never-ending comic book, though it may look that way at times. Personally, I’m going to appreciate Mysterio while I can, I’d recommend that you do the same.

Banks vs. Belair: One Goal in Mind

At WrestleMania 37, history was made. Headlining night one, Bianca Belair and Sasha Banks combined for a match that’ll live forever, a rare modern moment that felt like exactly that, a moment in time. This wasn’t forced and unearned, it was entrancing, a completely immersive experience that took fans on that familiar rollercoaster. They hit every emotion, never even threatening to overstay their welcome. Together, Banks and Belair provided the perfect conclusion to what’ll be an iconic three hours of WrestleMania, back in front of fans at last, a collective sigh of relief.

For Banks, that was always the goal and by 2021, it certainly felt overdue. Arriving on the main roster six years prior, Banks entered as the audience’s elected figurehead, soon being forcefully cemented below that position. Banks was featured and prominently too, but it never quite felt as it could, and perhaps should have. She wasn’t the centrepiece, still pursuing the potential that was so pronounced in NXT. On RAW and SmackDown, Banks had produced in a major way but it always felt in spite of the creative forces at hand.

By contrast, this was Belair’s first WrestleMania as a main roster member, being called up immediately after 2020’s empty arena edition. Following a slow start, Belair found her feet after being drafted to SmackDown, winning the Royal Rumble only three months later. A feud with Bayley was Belair’s only real preparation for such a scenario, performing exclusively without fans since leaving NXT. Before that, Belair did shine in the 2020 Royal Rumble, which boded well but even still, this was a serious sign of faith if nothing else.

Though the obvious destination as soon as Belair triumphed, her feud with Banks wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed. That didn’t lessen anyone’s confidence in the match itself though, even with Belair’s relative inexperience. Frankly, this felt really quite simple, Sasha Banks wasn’t missing in a WrestleMania main event, she’s probably not missing in any match of that magnitude. Banks is one of the most creative, prolific in-ring performers on earth and underwhelming build aside, she now finally felt positioned to succeed.

Not only was Banks central on ‘the grandest stage of them all,’ but she was opposite an opponent that represented unique possibilities. Simply put, Belair is an athlete unlike any other, almost certainly the best that this women’s division has ever seen. That unlocked opportunities that just weren’t feasible against anyone else, as Banks had an opponent with incomparable raw ingredients. Even though Belair didn’t have a decorated match catalogue yet, this felt like the perfect place to start, an immense mix of factors coming together at once.

Going in, the match felt can’t-miss, an inevitable match of the night candidate. In execution though, they strived for something far different, taking a bold detour that catapulted this beyond any year-end list. Finally reaching the stage that for over a decade, she’d so publicly strived for, Banks wasn’t seeking just another classic. Considering the talent involved, that almost felt too easy. An enthralling exchange of back and forth offence, that’s the safe route. Pack the thing with near-falls, and send them home happy.

That’s not what separates Sasha Banks though, it’s her attention to detail and her mind for a match’s nuance. It’s that trait which makes her chemistry with Bayley so magical, an element that’ll hopefully stay with Belair after working so extensively with both. Based on WrestleMania, that’s a fair assumption also, as Belair performed with the poise of a decorated veteran. She was certainly positioned to succeed too, as in the match of her dreams, Banks took things in a daring direction.

For just over seventeen minutes, Banks played the role of crash test dummy, almost exclusively bouncing around the WrestleMania ring. In the most innovative ways imaginable, Belair basically dominated proceedings, with Banks just trying to stay afloat. Every step seemed to spotlight another piece of Belair’s potential, bridging today’s skill-set and tomorrow’s projections in one fell swoop. Belair had long been circled as an eventual superstar and though she’d taken strikes towards that term at Royal Rumble, she was completing the process in front of our eyes at WrestleMania.

Now more than ever, engaging in-ring action is commonplace. That’s one thing, but having an idea that lives long in the memory, that’s another. Excitement is easy, something enduring is what events of this scale are built on. When I think back to Banks vs. Belair, I remember those same visuals that you do, the hair whip and just the many stunning combinations of Belair’s pure power with Banks’ brilliant brain. Beyond those clips that’ll always replay in my mind though, it’s the core concept that sticks most.

This match had one idea in mind, a clear goal to complete. After years of waiting to be the focus, Sasha Banks was selfless enough to so effortlessly reassign that honour when it mattered most. This was an opportunity that couldn’t be recreated, a moment that warranted more than just another epic. Banks didn’t need the protection of a grand, glitzy finishing stretch, Belair just needed to win. There will be another day for that sequence, another time for their most complete match but this was a chance to do something that lives forever.

At WrestleMania, Sasha Banks so willingly welcomed Bianca Belair onto a tier that had become increasingly exclusive. If things go as they should, the rest will be history, all traced back to a performance giving enough that in front of 25000 people, Belair became iconic. It was the right choice for the right talent, a decision that should shape the division’s next decade, setting the standard and starting a new era, all at once. In a landscape of the interchangeable, Banks and Belair set themselves apart, producing something not only timeless, but truly significant.

In many ways, it’s a throwback WrestleMania classic in the most modern fashion imaginable, one that’s ideas should inspire and motivate a generation.

Dolph Ziggler: Windows of Opportunity

Though wrestling history will eventually find its consensus, I’m a firm believer that even the most dismissed men and women had their moments. Take Ryback for example, an industry punching bag now but once upon a time, he represented an opportunity. A brief window to commit and make a star that instead, swiftly disintegrated. Now, that choice may not have changed a thing in the grand scheme of things, as Ryback could’ve found his eventual destination regardless. That’s an understandable guess, but it doesn’t erase the reality.

Another, more recently relevant example is Braun Strowman, who only years removed from potential superstardom, was unceremoniously released. After falling at the first hurdle, maybe even the second, Strowman could rebuild but before long, he’s just another name on that dreaded list. Strowman’s departure surprised people, though it didn’t necessarily upset them. Instead, the ardent viewer had made their mind up, almost conceding defeat as just like his usage, Strowman’s performances declined. Perhaps my favourite case of this truth is Dolph Ziggler though, a somehow still active member of the WWE roster.

Ziggler is too reliable, too versatile and frankly, too good to fall away at the pace of those prior names. Instead, Ziggler remains valuable but in terms of perception, he couldn’t be more distanced from his peak. Ziggler had three single moments, individual opportunities that could’ve catapulted his career upwards. One by one though, they faded, regardless of how unfathomable that seemed during the thrill of each high. Though there was certainly stumbles beforehand, I think the first window arrives in April 2013. Indeed, THAT cash-in victory.

The reaction to that triumph isn’t an accident, it’s a credit to Ziggler’s hard work but also, a knowing resentment of his assumed struggle. There was a sense that Ziggler’s biggest foes were in the front office, earning a raw support that frankly, has only been recaptured a handful of times since. They even weaponized that alleged acrimony, having Ziggler almost lose a time or two and hooking the audience seamlessly along the way. Either way, Ziggler left with the big gold crown, wrestling’s most heroic heel.

One month later, Ziggler was concussed and two months later, he was no longer champion. On the bright side, the audience’s emotional investment was finally embraced, as Ziggler pulled off an immense double-turn in his crushing title loss. The follow-up? Well, he just lost again really, there was no follow-up. In fact, Ziggler almost vanished before long, returning to undercard status in an instant, apparently deemed “injury prone.” To translate, Ziggler wasn’t a chosen one and for now, that was the elected explanation.

Awaiting any kind of genuine opportunity though, Ziggler soon rebounded, returning to form in late 2014. In my view, this is Ziggler’s peak of performance, even if it doesn’t quite match the year prior in terms of relevance. He was in the perfect role now though, eventually resulting in a staggering Survivor Series performance, vanquishing The Authority as Sole Survivor. Well, basically anyway, overcoming a 3-1 deficit but also, being forgotten for around five minutes while Sting stared at Triple H.

Cool moment? Sure, worth emphasising over Ziggler’s potential coronation? Ideally, no but the writing was on the wall and at WrestleMania, any doubt would be erased. By that point, Ziggler was just another guy in the ladder match, a familiar role for the guy that five months prior, seemed set to finally break through. In truth, that’s the end of this story, but there is one final shot at redemption. Another two years down the line, Ziggler produced an unexpected masterpiece, taking The Miz’s Intercontinental Title at No Mercy 2016.

Realistically, this window makes those other instances look like walls. Ziggler’s fate was sealed, this just another reminder for those of us that somehow, still cared. Since then, Ziggler has been fighting uphill, mostly operating as a bitter villain that’s usually responded to with a dismissive groan. Like anyone else, Ziggler certainly has flaws, but he didn’t earn that reaction, his presentation did. At some point, he went from tomorrow’s star to yesterday’s afterthought, the inevitable result of those fleeting opportunities being ignored.

Realistically, this is quite obviously McMahon’s set of toys and now more than ever, he’s unwilling to share. In his mind, Ziggler just wasn’t that guy and no performance could prove otherwise, no crowd reaction would convince him. That doesn’t render Ziggler’s career irrelevant, simply frustrating. He’s still been a featured figure for the industry leader, sustaining his stint with over a decade of success. That’s no mean feat and demands respect, but it’s hard to enjoy the full image without glaring at those single signs of what could’ve been.

Quite simply, the promotion saw Ziggler one way, while much of the audience saw him another. That’s fine, a familiar tale but perhaps what makes Ziggler such an extreme example is his loyalty. Well, you may frame it differently and fair enough, we’ll never know Ziggler’s motivation in general, let alone to consistently re-sign. That’s his choice and it’s almost certainly made him a very wealthy man, fulfilled potential or not. It’s a complicated legacy, one that’ll probably age well but right now, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

I’ll always have those three moments though, glaring windows of opportunity that with each passing day, are steadily forgotten. That’s a shame but Ziggler’s exclusive host always have written the history books and probably always will, so he’s at least in good hands I suppose.  

The Land of Opportunity

In 2016, there was a sense that things were changing. Naïve as it may be, NXT’s presence earned some optimism, as WWE dramatically altered their approach to talent recruitment. Their outlook had changed, finally reacting to the increasingly relevant wider wrestling world. In January, they’d signed AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, two titans of NJPW’s recent hot streak. Once the assumed antithesis of a WWE Superstar, Kevin Owens was now a headline act on their previously impenetrable main roster.

As NXT symbolised a potentially brighter future though, the main roster had some catching up to do. Increasingly stagnant, RAW failed to capitalise on The Shield’s monumental split, with Roman Reigns’ ill-advised push reigniting that familiar resentment. As their dynamic with the audience declined back to square one, WWE shook things up again, bringing back the brand split. An always polarising concept, the brand split had been slowly phased out five years earlier, reaching its natural conclusion as the promotion’s talent pool shrunk.

Now though, talent was once again feeling truly underutilized. Not just misplaced either, unfulfilled as clean slates, still waiting for a genuine opportunity of any kind. With that in mind, the brand split made sense, even if some work would have to be done in terms of star power. The talent was certainly there though and as always, the ardent viewer’s eyes headed in SmackDown’s direction. Us nerds love ourselves a pretend underdog and for two decades, SmackDown has provided exactly that.

You can debate how often that SmackDown has actually been good but then again, you can do the same with RAW and for whatever reason, the blue brand has always appealed to me most. It could be something as dumb as the color scheme, perhaps it’s just the top guys that I associate with that show. I don’t know but taste and preferences aside, we can’t lose sight of what SmackDown was at that time. By 2016, the show was years removed from any relevance.

It had never been as eventful as RAW but this most recent era had reached new lows, featuring multi-man tags and little else. The brand split’s return offered a chance to change that though, the start of a new era for the programme that many still rooted for. On draft night, it wasn’t easy to maintain that hope, let alone expectations. In Dean Ambrose, AJ Styles, John Cena and Randy Orton, SmackDown certainly had a core worthy of your attention but elsewhere, it was slightly less exciting.

Alongside those names were what remained of Bray Wyatt, The Miz and Dolph Ziggler. Their women’s division would be led by Becky Lynch who for all of her immense talent, had been positioned firmly below RAW’s Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks. She didn’t appear to have much help either, with a supporting cast of Natalya and Naomi as well as unheralded NXT callups Alexa Bliss and Carmella. Though not without potential, that didn’t seem like a group that could make its own belt matter.

The tag division wasn’t lacking leadership, being built around The Usos and NXT’s American Alpha. The former were struggling however, entering to boos as their energetic babyface act became increasingly stale. That was the least of the tag ranks’ worries though as again, there just wasn’t much depth. An initial SummerSlam offering of Dolph Ziggler vs. Dean Ambrose didn’t immediately silence any doubts either but before long, things began to take shape and almost overnight, that perception swiftly shifted.

Armed with television time at last, stagnant characters found a more fitting form, prospects gained some momentum. The top guys did top guy things, as AJ Styles finally reached the unthinkable mountaintop, becoming WWE Champion and combining with Ambrose and Cena for an immense title scene. Others slotted in and out but those three led SmackDown through to February 2017, barely missing along the way. A genuine dream match, Cena and Styles were a magical mix but Ambrose wasn’t out of place, showing especially impressive chemistry with ‘The Phenomenal One.’

Below that, The Miz produced his personal best work, becoming the greatest Intercontinental Champion in recent memory. Opposite Ziggler, Miz made his often debated ceiling apparent, the perfect antagonist in a truly gripping conflict. That was a throwback personal issue, the kind of programme once synonymous with that beautiful white belt. Ziggler even put his career on the line, leading to a masterpiece with Miz at No Mercy. This wasn’t a fresh match, nor was it even a particularly interesting one, it just worked.

Things were allowed to breathe as quite frankly, they had to. Necessity is the mother of invention after all, as SmackDown’s women’s division continually showed. Lacking a lead villain, SmackDown was soon without their first choice of Eva Marie, trying Carmella briefly before settling on Alexa Bliss. Initially appearing to be nothing more than Becky Lynch’s first successful title defence, Bliss grew immensely in that time, maximising the opportunities that had eluded her in NXT. There was an obvious chip on her shoulder, rich in every single promo segment.

With that vacancy filled, the SmackDown women soon became one of the programme’s most popular puzzle pieces. It was very much a group effort, all guided by Lynch’s leadership and eventually, allowing Naomi to receive the coronation that’s so often seemed impossible. That was a story they’d continually missed and honestly, still do but ‘The Land of Opportunity’ made it happen, even if only for a moment or two. Bolstered by Nikki Bella and Mickie James along the way, that division is a rare modern example of positioning talent to succeed.

They made the most of in truth, very little and though that particular crop only stayed together for less than a year, it’s still spoken about fondly. People remember those times, I think they always will honestly. That division was so dynamic that they actively cut into the tag division’s time. It didn’t hurt the show’s quality either, even if The Usos progression towards their eventual heel brilliance was slightly slowed. In early 2017, SmackDown somewhat lost its way, finally changing for good as things were shaken up, again.

Over four years later, SmackDown is now the A-Show, airing on FOX and built around ‘The Tribal Chief’ Roman Reigns. RAW is no fake underdog though, it’s still very much the status quo. The promotion’s consensus leader in terms of quality, SmackDown is stronger than ever these days but in terms of feel, it’s certainly very different now. Right or wrong, there was a sense of struggle to that 2016 squad. They were the afterthoughts, the forgotten ones, a collection of missed opportunities.

The result was something special, a fleeting reminder that this stuff can still connect and sometimes, it happens when you least expect.

Lashley Dominates Miz TV, Mox Stays Strong | Takes, Takes & More Takes #19

With Elimination Chamber now in the rear-view mirror, WWE’s route to WrestleMania is steadily taking shape. Led by a new world champion, RAW is making a monster while on SmackDown, the suspected destination is suddenly set-in stone. As usual, it was a polarising PPV event but for both brands, it’s now about building momentum towards ‘The Grandest Stage of Them All.’ Elsewhere, NJPW has a major match of their own, as KENTA finally gets his shot at Jon Moxley, the IWGP United States Champion. It’s takes time folks, let’s get to it.


Leaving Elimination Chamber as WWE Champion, The Miz has reclaimed the industry’s mountaintop. Though against the run of play and probably not in line with any objective form book, it’s hard to be too harsh on the man himself. The Miz is an incredibly reliable piece of WWE’s often stagnant puzzle, consistently entertaining even when his usage really stretches that term. In recent years, Miz has been a genuine highlight and though I’d question that claim currently, it’s still more than most can say.

Ideally, this feat would feel more dramatic, more newsworthy even. Instead, it very much felt like a mere plot point, which is partly decided by the timing in truth. WrestleMania is less than two months away and Miz’s endgame seems clear, involving more Bad Bunny than championship prestige. That’s fine, it just limits the ‘excitement’ somewhat, instead shifting the focus to what’s next. In fairness, WWE aren’t asking you to look far for the answer, as Bobby Lashley swiftly takes centre stage.

Losing his US Title in the most dominant fashion possible, Lashley was immediately elevated, playing a major part in Miz’s aforementioned victory. That suggested that Lashley was very much factored in, but the following night sealed the deal. RAW was effectively built around Lashley in fact, concluding with his emphatic victory over Braun Strowman. Granted, I’ve been far too optimistic in the past but this time? Surely, I’m safe. Lashley stood out before Sunday but now, he’s the brand solitary case of palpable momentum.

To me, the question isn’t Lashley, it’s about who will stand opposite him. The obvious choice is Drew McIntyre, using Lashley as the monster for him to slay at WrestleMania. That would allow McIntyre to score the title win moment that awaited him a year ago, soaking up the audience’s adulation at last. That could wait though, especially as McIntyre’s conflict with Sheamus remains unsettled. As I’ve said before, McIntyre vs. Sheamus would be a strong non-title tilt and with Lashley as champion, a beast could return.

Lashley vs. Lesnar is a relative dream match, the kind of blockbuster match that WWE has always utilised on this stage. In addition, it’s not a match requiring any overly complex build, particularly considering Paul Heyman’s current unavailability. One brawl will tick the box, with snappy pre-tapes and training montages managing the rest. As a viewer, that path is the most appealing to me, cementing Lashley as a destroyer and then if they must, building back towards Drew for the summer. That match is protected this way too, which keeps things fresh.

Elsewhere, the most obvious choice for RAW’s Women’s Title match appears to have been chosen, as Asuka and Charlotte Flair continued to bicker. This remains uninteresting to me but at this point, it just needs to be locked in and focused on. With Rhea Ripley “coming soon,” I no longer expect her inclusion and Alexa Bliss is lost elsewhere, so this will have to do. The match will be great, it’s just a shame that my interest in both characters continues to spiral. In Asuka’s case, there’s barely been an effort, which is most disappointing of all.

Speaking of Bliss, her bizarre programme opposite Orton is increasingly frustrating for me personally. Though certainly divisive, this was once at least vaguely interesting but now, it feels like heavy-handed satire. All of the worst tropes are dictating things and it’s a real shame, as RAW continues to limit two of its most talented performers. Not all long-term storytelling is good storytelling and after so much time, I find it almost impossible to care. That stings, trust me it stings.


As expected, it will be Roman Reigns that stands opposite Edge at WrestleMania, confirming the blue brand’s WrestleMania main event. Edge made things official in familiar fashion, pointing to the famed sign after flooring Reigns with a Spear. Moments earlier, Reigns had decimated Daniel Bryan, defending his title in a short sequel to Sunday’s stronger Chamber bout. Speaking of such, Bryan’s involvement isn’t finished yet either, continuing his interactions with Reigns as a Fastlane match appears feasible. Then again, SmackDown’s double count-out finish suggests a tag match including Edge and Uso is also possible.

I must say, this usage of Bryan isn’t an ideal enhancement of Edge’s narrative for me personally. This is a taste thing but if Fastlane doesn’t host a ‘proper’ Bryan – Reigns bout, I’ll almost certainly resent Edge’s inevitably extended take on the matter. Even still, I’m confident that by April, these two will have built a worthwhile conflict, already combining for some encouraging verbal exchanges. I will say though that in making such a show of “the decision,” WWE really achieved nothing. In theory, delaying the Rumble winner’s direction is smart, leaving the actual programme untouched for later.

Unfortunately, WWE didn’t manage that, instead only delaying the obvious while quite blatantly getting their paths underway. SmackDown may host an even better example than this one but either way, it’s relevant here too. On the bright side, Sunday’s opening match was a credit to SmackDown’s main event scene, feeling fresh throughout and featuring great talent in mostly suitable roles. That bodes well for this brand’s big picture regardless of the WrestleMania outcome as in truth, the options are enticing enough for either option. Big E remains on the table for Reigns and incredibly, Bryan might too.

Cesaro belongs on that list also, as well as to a lesser extent, Shinsuke Nakamura and Rey Mysterio too. The latter’s value continues to fall but he’s still an icon and in their minds at least, probably only needs a win or two when necessary. On the other hand, Cesaro could leave WrestleMania as the obvious choice for Reigns’ next extended programme, this week continuing his emerging tale with Seth Rollins. That match could honestly land on Fastlane, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be done there, so I’ll remain cautiously optimistic for now.

Speaking of such, that same optimism is the root of my dwindling positivity re: Sasha Banks vs. Bianca Belair. We all share an excitement for the match itself, one of the industry’s greats against a rising star that’s athletically limitless. The physical potential of this is so great in fact that as they finally went face to face following Belair’s own ‘point,’ I found myself momentarily excited. Unfortunately, that visual followed yet another flat, frustrating segment. Once again, it’s buzzwords and branding, feeling a disappointing distance from the authentic presentation that a match of this ilk deserves.

At this point, I’m running out of explanations as clearly, this can’t be a talking point for the next two months. Unfortunately though, I’m not as confident in this actual programme turning a corner. It probably won’t matter as if the match delivers, any flaws can be willingly forgotten but in terms of programming, this could be a struggle. Thus far, these two characters aren’t gelling particularly well in my view, feeling rather hollow outside of Belair’s general likeability. Combine the lack of contrast with somewhat faulty delivery as well as much, much worse dialogue and you have quite the adventure.

Oh, and did I mention Reginald? Well, I should have because on Sunday, he cost Belair and Banks their tag title match, with the latter suffering a defeat to Nia Jax. That whole presentation was so prelim, almost immediately limiting this programme to a perception more suitable for some random second tier title tilt. It’s not necessary, as this should actually be a blockbuster main event match, not an undercooked, half-hearted Intercontinental Title bout. Incredibly, Reginald isn’t done yet either, continuing to involve himself for what I can only assume is “heat”?

My SmackDown enjoyment is generally less consistent than the consensus, but this week felt like a pretty sustained attempt at securing the lower end of that scale. There were some misses here unfortunately, including another staggering loss for Liv Morgan, as she inexplicably fell to Tamina! I’ll say this, SmackDown is mostly bearable, and I seldom lose all hope but personally, I don’t see the top to bottom brilliance that others seem to. Ideally, that’ll change before WrestleMania.


As my interest in the major programming continues to wane, NJPW makes a unique return to the series here. After months of anticipation, the biggest edition of Strong yet arrived, headlined by Jon Moxley’s blockbuster clash with KENTA. Even though I’d never viewed this particular product before, that match had my full attention for obvious reasons. With that being said, I did have some concerns. Stuck in an empty studio setting, this felt unlikely to match expectations, looking to capitalise on the hype under such sterile circumstances.

Don’t get me wrong, fan-less pro wrestling is the new norm but for these two guys against each other? I had my doubts. Thankfully, they proved me completely wrong, producing something that I personally found thrilling. Perhaps that speaks more to my own investment but either way, I thought they adjusted magnificently, bringing great physicality in a concise, cohesive thriller. KENTA was especially great, performing at a level that frankly, I haven’t seen from him in some time. I don’t mean that as a criticism of his recent work either, quite the opposite in fact.

I think that since leaving WWE, KENTA has adapted his game admirably, becoming a spiteful enough striker that his declining dynamism isn’t as apparent. He’s always hit hard of course, it’s just more blunt now than blinding. Here though, KENTA was sharp, blistering Moxley and landing his offence with a startling snap. Combine that with Moxley’s general mastery and you have something that for me at least, quickly became rather special. They just had me hooked, it felt organic and authentic, as though it could end at any moment.

That even included the trademark count-out tease, which is almost like an inside joke at this juncture. In an empty arena match featuring another promotion’s top star though? Less so, it felt very much feasible as the referee counted. That element didn’t hurt in general to be honest, with so many pieces at play that any result seemed reasonable. Speaking of such, Moxley’s victory appears to have surprised some but considering his upcoming PPV main event in AEW, such a result was never out of the question in my view.

What it means for the IWGP United States Title is a different question, but one that I sense will be answered sooner than later anyway. Regardless, I couldn’t help but concentrate on KENTA at this match’s conclusion. Showing defiance before Moxley finally closed the show, KENTA almost dared his foe to finish things, simply refusing to relent. There’s a pretty powerful metaphor in there if you look hard enough, as it captures KENTA’s career revival rather well. He may not be a centrepiece for NJPW but with matches like this, his value speaks for itself.

Elsewhere, Ren Narita scored an upset victory over Chris Dickinson in what unsurprisingly, proved to be a terrific little match. Narita is a talent that I haven’t seen for some time, almost certainly before his excursion even. He certainly shined here though, bringing tremendous aggression and intensity to proceedings. His fire was so stark in fact that I questioned the whole match, suddenly uncertain as to its purpose. I assumed that Dickinson was the one being showcased, a veteran that I’ve enjoyed before and by all accounts, appears to have found a home on Strong.

That assumption then adjusted to the belief that Dickinson was simply being selfless but would still eventually prevail. Instead, he soon submitted and even as someone that hasn’t seen either man in this setting, I was stunned. The execution was so effective that it felt like a genuine moment, as Narita almost visibly validated his own confidence, knocking the fight out of Dickinson en route to a surprisingly emphatic victory. That was a tremendous supporting act, and the opener didn’t hurt either, spotlighting Brody King in particular.

King is incredibly underrated in my view, a tremendous talent with the skill to match his physical presence. This match was more about the latter though in truth, as King stood out on size alone. With so many options, Strong isn’t likely to become a regular destination for my Friday nights but as advertised, it’s rock-solid pro wrestling and in the current circumstances especially, that’ll do for now. Also, the more Moxley the better, as is law for all current wrestling.

Well folks, that concludes this week’s edition of ‘Takes, Takes & More Takes.’ Got a take? Send it over on the Twitter, @JoeHulbert! Be nice though and try to disguise any critiques as compliments. Thanks pals, speak soon!

Chamber Choices, A Disputed Era | Takes, Takes & More Takes #18

After a particularly niche edition, ‘Takes’ returns to its pursuit of that elusive casual fan this week. With Elimination Chamber fast approaching, RAW and SmackDown are back in the fold, finalizing their builds to Sunday’s PPV. The WrestleMania directions are (very) slowly taking shape but inside the Chamber, more answers should surely emerge. Elsewhere, NXT leaves a critically acclaimed TakeOver event with momentum on their side and even a television hook too. Can they capitalise though? Time will tell folks, let’s get to the takes.


Sparking analysis of age, RAW’s Elimination Chamber line-up is certainly polarising. In terms of talent, it’s hard to argue, featuring six revered performers but yet, the whole thing lacks excitement. It all feels familiar, disappointingly dry considering the setting. With that being said, I do love this particular “gimmick” and have no doubt that this talent will maximise it. As far as result, there’s certainly some intrigue too, even if that’s partly rooted in the brand’s lack of overarching direction.

Clearly, McIntyre is feuding with Sheamus but considering the almost two months between Sunday and WrestleMania, that remains questionable as a major match for the ‘Grandest Stage of Them All.’ It does feel like a very suitable non-title, supporting act though, which only makes this match more interesting. More on that later but staying with the assumption that McIntyre retains, it’s tough to find the ideal challenger that should stand opposite him. Braun Strowman is looming but that feels more like Fastlane, frankly.

Part-time attractions aside, there is one name that jumps out from the dwindling list. The current United States Champion, Bobby Lashley met McIntyre last June, suffering a defeat that eventually cemented The Hurt Business’ formation. Since then, he’s dominated and after Sunday, both he and McIntyre could’ve effectively erased their list of contenders. To me, that represents an opportunity, the chance to bring some relevance back to this secondary crown. The US Title once symbolised top contender status and Lashley can revive that, earning a WrestleMania clash with McIntyre.

That’s merely fantasy booking though, as Lashley seems just as likely to continue his control over the brand’s second tier. If so, the Chamber match is immediately wide open again, with two options standing out in particular. After being so emphasised since landing on RAW, AJ Styles feels worth mentioning, potentially regaining the title to set up a WrestleMania match with Edge. That could be a marquee enough bout, leaving McIntyre and Sheamus to that aforementioned undercard slot. Edge still feels headed to SmackDown though, so probably not.

Even if reluctantly, that naturally guides me in one direction. Randy Orton has been ‘feuding’ with ‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt for three months. Well, he’s really been feuding with Alexa Bliss, but it’s been quite the adventure regardless. These two seem set for a conclusion on the industry’s biggest stage, but could a title be hanging in the balance? An Orton win would certainly allow that, with Wyatt then returning for revenge. Personally, I’d prefer a Firefly Fun House sequel but considering the content, something more heated (!) is probably required.

Though uncertain, the WWE Title scene feels set in stone compared to its female counterpart. With Lacey Evans legitimately pregnant, Asuka is left without an opponent for Sunday and hilariously, this division is suddenly without its central angle. That seems more like a feature than a flaw but either way, this fiasco continues to amaze. There are some easy options here, for better or worse but it’s such a lost division that honestly, anything could be next. Charlotte Flair is the obvious name and has been since returning.

Flair could revive her villainous ways, stealing the title and betraying her alleged friend. That would set up another match between the two for WrestleMania, which would be fine even if somewhat uninspiring. Personally, I’m once again looking in Rhea Ripley’s direction, hopeful that in this position, she could breathe new life into the RAW ranks. A night one title win would be the perfect statement for such a blockbuster talent, positioning Ripley for a long reign featuring a WrestleMania defence against both Flair and Asuka.

If they intend to achieve anything with this title, the decision seems obvious. At this point, Asuka vs. Flair is a retread regardless of route, even if the match itself will almost certainly deliver. Ripley represents the chance to make a new star, the opportunity to change this brand’s division. There’s a lot of talent already onboard but Ripley is new, the fresh face that if handled correctly, could reignite interest in the established women opposite her. If not though, there is a reliable choice available.

Currently scoring wins on SmackDown, Bayley is without an obvious WrestleMania direction. That could change on Sunday, with Bayley becoming RAW’s top female heel immediately, taking the title in an ‘open challenge’ scenario. For the sake of balance, you’d need to send some names the other way but in a big picture sense, this feels like a decent enough move to steady the ship. On the other hand, perhaps it’s time to do the opposite, embracing this chaos and making the increasingly crazed Alexa Bliss champion.

That seems like an ill-fit considering Bliss’ continued interactions with Orton, but it’s hard to dismiss considering their creative just three weeks ago. Bliss conquered Asuka with ease in a decision that was immediately rendered useless, only damaging the latter. That was short-sighted and perhaps this would fit a similar bill, but it’s worth mentioning anyway. Either way, RAW’s half of Elimination Chamber is a relative mystery and there’s an intrigue to that, which should only enhance the matchups’ physical potential.


Hoping to follow up on a magnificent TakeOver event, NXT produced a surprisingly complex effort. After five great matches, Sunday’s show had a blockbuster climax too, as in one fell swoop, Adam Cole shattered The Undisputed Era. Finally armed with a hook, NXT had a major story to develop, a cliff-hanger to capitalise on. The intention was indeed to build on that feat too, as the brand attempted a pretty emotive post-show angle. Unfortunately, social media turned those hopes into a fleeting nightmare, sparking some debate along the way.

After being taken out by Cole, Kyle O’Reilly was stretchered to the back following the broadcast’s conclusion. Neither live nor posted immediately after, NXT certainly intended to produce an angle that stood separate from the pack. Understandably, this was an almost throwback attempt at creating some doubt. That’s what wrestling is built on in truth but through no fault of anyone involved, this thing spiralled in fascinating fashion. It left me pondering the industry’s current state, who is being worked and with what goal in mind.

For the sake of clarity, NXT wasn’t attempting to portray a “seizure,” they were simply seeking sincere sympathy, rather than the more pantomime-style support often seen nowadays. In the traditional sense at least, there’s very little true ‘heat’ in pro wrestling, it’s much more self-aware than that. People still boo and cheer, it’s just not as raw as it once was. These angles are an attempt to escape that but is the audience willing to play ball? To me at least, it feels as though the viewer is increasingly reluctant to be fooled.

That creates an interesting dynamic, further complicating the audience’s relationship with their favourite heroes and villains. These men and women feel more human than ever, for better or worse and in O’Reilly’s case, this was a far more personal concern. That sounds silly, as the fan of yesteryear would cry tears in a similar scenario but yet, they obviously couldn’t track the footage on social media. They weren’t reading the performers’ peers share their own concern either, which only complicates things further. I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong here, it’s just clearly evolving.

Either way, NXT added a significant piece to this puzzle, even if it was frustratingly overshadowed by the above dialogue. In the grand scheme of things though, this brand still leaves the week better than they entered, suddenly hosting a pretty intriguing main event scene. My expectation is that the title is headed back Cole’s way, likely at WrestleMania. Personally however, I’d prefer that both Balor and Cole move on, coronating O’Reilly with two wins on that stage, conquering both friend and foe. If necessary, even send main roster stars in the other direction.

Elsewhere, Io Shirai’s reign feels in need of a jolt. NXT has one of the industry’s strongest women’s divisions but yet, the results still fall short of that group’s potential in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, the women regularly produce strong matches, but I’m often left wanting something more substantial, a conflict that’s truly memorable. I’m not sure who fits that bill on this brand, but Raquel Gonzalez no longer seems like the obvious choice, almost becoming a de facto babyface when standing opposite the tag team champions.

Her and Dakota Kai’s match with Ember Moon and Shotzi Blackheart delivered regardless, really kicking off TakeOver in style. The male final only raised the bar higher too, as MSK stole the show with an extraordinary match opposite the Grizzled Young Veterans. Carter and Lee’s pursuit of Burch and Lorcan should reinvigorate the tag title scene, almost certainly producing matches of immense quality. Ideally, this will be exactly that though, a true chase that maximises this momentum. MSK are a special act, though I think their segments still need more authenticity than this current polish.

While personally, I maintain that this product lacks a truly fitting presentation, the key pieces are in place. Whether you love the weekly ups and downs or not, NXT has a growing group of top talent that’s headed in at least vaguely interesting directions. Among those is Balor, perhaps wrestling’s strongest champion in my view. In the big picture sense, everything is set, featuring the right performers in for the most part, the correct positions. It’s now a matter of making compelling TV, which clearly, is easier said than done.


Led by a far less dispensable champion than their red counterpart, SmackDown enters Elimination Chamber in a very different state. It feels certain that no matter what, Roman Reigns is entering WrestleMania as Universal Champion. That limits the mystery surrounding their Chamber match but on the other hand, the line-up alone warrants some intrigue. Neither of these matches lack talent but SmackDown’s group feels fresher to me, more exciting in terms of palpable, on-screen momentum. The places in play feel fluid, it’s an evolving landscape.

Speaking of such, Cesaro finds himself as one of the favourites, all mere months after nearing complete irrelevance. In a neat villainous touch, Reigns will face the winner on Sunday, enhancing his heel persona while also indirectly elevating McIntyre. That stipulation makes Cesaro seem all the more fitting though, positioning the organic babyface as an underdog, rallying bravely in a relatively brief thriller. Bryan and Owens could fit a similar bill of course, but Cesaro would benefit the most, both from the Chamber and Reigns himself.

Then again, an Owens win wouldn’t hurt but considering the loss that awaits against Reigns, such a path should probably be left alone. In some ways, I suppose this scenario does unlock a heel win but personally, I doubt it. Though Sami Zayn’s antics could fit in this role, such a presentation would muddy the waters in a fashion that Reigns doesn’t require. He’s a truly despicable villain, cementing that is far more important than some fleeting comedy. The only concern with a Cesaro win is simple, then what?

Reigns’ destination seems clear, almost certainly a WrestleMania main event with Edge. For Cesaro however, it’s less obvious, though the recent Seth Rollins interaction could be a clue. If forgotten by WrestleMania, any Cesaro climb would be rendered useless so ideally, he’s indeed factored in. A match with Rollins is an enticing one, the kind of in-ring standout that every undercard needs. I personally assumed that Bryan would be Rollins’ WrestleMania opponent but at this juncture, I’d imagine he’ll be willingly dispatched from the pre-show battle royal.

Elsewhere, SmackDown’s other suspected marquee match is steadily taking shape, with Bianca Belair and Sasha Banks becoming a momentary tag team. This Sunday, they’ll even challenge for the tag titles, taking on Nia Jax and Shayna Baszler. If the plan here is simply spotlighting some tame tension, I’m already somewhat disappointed. It’s early days of course but I’m reminded of that infamous AJ Styles – Shinsuke Nakamura build, a “dream match” that after so many cold exchanges, felt like anything other match. It’s hard to make things special when you’re interacting every week.

On the other hand, this direction could just as easily spark something spectacular, adding more intensity than sheer spectacle. An official ‘turn’ for either could be a step too far but something shocking is ideal, even if Banks only leans in that direction for the next two months. A post-match handshake could quickly redeem her anyway, I just feel that if they’re going to be featured alongside each other for two months, this’ll need some animosity. Clearly, time will tell and I could be wrong, I just want this to be bigger than buzzwords and branding.

Either way, I’m not sweating Sunday’s result as frankly, those belts just are what they are at this point. It’s not a disaster, but instead a very comparable female equivalent of WWE’s male tag titles, which is a tale as old as time. The key isn’t the result, it’s the dynamic between Belair and Banks. Clearly, this feud is using that familiar plot point but if its good, their raw talent will easily handle the rest. Honestly, that’s a necessary triumph at this point, both for these two women as well as the division in general.

It’s not lost on me that for all the talent onboard, I’m still regularly critiquing the handling of these women’s divisions. That’s frustrating and not just isolated to WWE either. Even within that system, some are clearly doing better than others but in terms of big picture, I wish there were a more complete offering among them. RAW’s ranks are a mess, NXT is lacking a fitting central conflict and SmackDown, well that just feels like a failure of planning. Banks had no strong heels awaiting her and instead, I’m watching Natalya and Tamina defeat The Riott Squad.

The blue brand does strive to feature most, and everyone has a role but with the wrong women showcased, that’s swiftly for nought. It just feels as though collectively, things could be better. Perhaps that’s always the case in fairness, but I’d imagine that in at least some form or fashion, you can see my point. Nonetheless, I still believe that Banks and Belair can headline WrestleMania, which for now, should remain the ultimate goal. Hopefully they’ll get there, regardless of the route taken.

Well folks, that concludes this week’s edition of ‘Takes, Takes & More Takes.’ Got a take? Send it over on the Twitter, @JoeHulbert! Be nice though and try to disguise any critiques as compliments. Thanks pals, speak soon!

Rumble Routes Underway, Dusty Cup Classic | Takes, Takes & More Takes #16

After weeks of hype, speculation and admitted fear, WWE’s Royal Rumble event has come and gone. Overall, it appears to have been a hit, generally drawing critical acclaim as the ‘Road to WrestleMania’ takes shape. That wasn’t the only headline last weekend though, as NJPW produced their latest classic, with Hiroshi Tanahashi conquering Shingo Takagi. Elsewhere, NXT featured a standout match of its own, continuing the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, while welcoming Edge too. Lots to cover folks, let’s get to it.


As some of you may recall, my NJPW fandom didn’t start this year in the steadiest shape. After missing much of their return in 2020, I entered Wrestle Kingdom with a somewhat cautious optimism. Though the overarching direction didn’t entice me much, the talent’s continued consistency is hard to deny. The promotion’s famed “house style” will continue to spark conversation but the quality is obvious, especially with Kota Ibushi as double champion. Beyond that obvious physical appeal though, one particular match had my emotional investment.

Fresh off a throwback victory over Great-O-Khan, Tanahashi found himself in a familiar position, fighting for gold in a major main event. Granted, the belt wasn’t quite as recognisable, with Tanahashi challenging Shingo Takagi for his NEVER Openweight Title. Takagi had become a historically great owner of that crown, only expanding on Tomohiro Ishii’s prior efforts, and continuing the belt’s alliance with brutality. Takagi is one of the industry’s most prolific performers, simply willing each and every encounter to something worthwhile.

Even still, this matchup was an intriguing one on paper. While the potential seemed undeniable, it was a fascinating styles clash of sorts. Tanahashi famously took NJPW’s main event matches in a different direction, using a distant tradition to popularise relative simplicity. His matches aren’t built on physicality or even aggression, striving for a more grandiose drama, since immovable from the modern ‘epic.’ The drama in Takagi’s matches is far blunter, building with the enthralling action, emotive on the sheer damage sustained along the way.

That was an interesting mix but to the surprise of no one, they managed it with ease. This wasn’t a bout that subverted expectations or even escaped the current genre, it was a case of two men simply perfecting it. Tanahashi is the original master of this match and though his physical decline is increasingly pronounced, his unparalleled grasp of pacing and selling only weaponizes that truth. It’s an on-screen narrative after all, as Tanahashi struggles to remain relevant, leaning more and more on his reputation as the thinking man’s wrestler.

Initially, that was palpable, with Takagi operating at Tanahashi’s pace as the old ace still battled to keep up. As things escalated though, Takagi steadily brought Tanahashi into his world but by then, his challenger was inspired. Tanahashi’s time working Takagi’s leg paid off too, proving that sometimes, new tricks aren’t necessary, especially with old tricks as great as this. Tanahashi remains the emotional pull of NJPW for me personally, he’s the guy that I care about most, the titan that I’ll forever adore.

Considering that, this match was very much for me, both in content as well as narrative. From the outside looking in, this was a simple tale of Tanahashi rolling back the years but in truth, it was simply a great champion once again finding a way to win. If the immense praise convinces you to watch this match, I’d imagine that in some ways, it could be quite befuddling. In the first half especially, Tanahashi looks old and slow, almost stumbling from one step to the next, seeking any type of rhythm in a match type that he once made famous.

The rest is objectively magnificent but if invested, it’s only enhanced by that prior portion. Tanahashi’s physical state appears truly tragic at times, creating something sincerely inspiring as he rallies late. It’s such a simple story and that’s Tanahashi’s brilliance, taking the tiniest things and making them matter. There’s an innate sense of competition to his major matches, a raw spirit of sporting pride. At times here, Tanahashi tried to match Takagi’s penchant for violence but that’s never the appeal, it’s that beautiful flow, the wonderful ambiance of a Tanahashi title tilt.

It feels unfair to say so little about Takagi when covering this match but honestly, he speaks for himself. Whether you’ve been watching him for one decade or one minute, Takagi’s talent will be undeniable, battering foes while developing a vulnerability that never hurts his aura. His selling is immense, a perfect example of how to pack those bruising exchanges with drama and emotion. This match was magic, another classic for two all-time greats, a reminder of what this style can be when limited to its core ingredients.

Elsewhere, Will Ospreay and Satoshi Kojima exceeded all expectations in the show’s co-main event, producing a thrilling No Disqualification match. This didn’t jump off the page for me personally but Ospreay was desperate to maximise it and inexplicably, Kojima was delighted to assist his hopes. These two went to a level that I never imagined, far beyond Kojima’s usually spirited showings in recent years. Kojima still has a lot to offer but this was an inspired effort, something truly staggering after a 30-year career.


Though solid, The Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic had been progressing in somewhat understated fashion. Yet to produce something transcendent or whatever the current NXT equivalent for that term is, this tournament was rather indicative of the brand hosting it. With an in-ring style that’s restrictive enough to be deemed limiting, these matches manage to be too textbook to explode while featuring an excess that keeps things firmly in the middle. It’s not a grounded or gritty style, the finishing stretches make sure of that.

Personally, that’s no issue at all for me, as TakeOver main event insanity aside, I’ve always enjoyed NXT’s bell-to-bell action. There’s enough variety without losing the product’s overall feel, which isn’t easy with such a range of talent. In the right hands, it can be a perfect mix for my taste too, which was the case with this week’s main event. Bringing the Dusty Cup to a new level, The Undisputed Era combination of Adam Cole and Roderick Strong shared an unsurprising classic with Tommaso Ciampa and Timothy Thatcher.

This was brilliant, rooted in tight, cohesive action, rich with physicality. Thatcher especially stole the show in that regard, with Strong a worthy runner-up. Nastily mutilating the backbreaker king, Thatcher added a spite that made his de-facto heat segment matter, injecting a palpable intensity. That allowed things to feel alive as the action developed, it never seemed like stalling but instead, an organic escalation. Strong matched his aggression and then some, battling away in a fashion that made Thatcher look more formidable than ever.

Naturally, they soon found themselves in the modern sequences that we’ve come to expect but on execution alone, this warrants more than an eyeroll. These guys combined perfectly, even finding a sudden finish to complete a match that overall, encapsulated everything compelling about the NXT formula. I love Thatcher but in WWE’s system, this really feels like his role to me, the heat segment leader in a steady, “throwback” heel tandem. He and Ciampa are a great fit, even if their disposition is slightly less clear than that right now.

Elsewhere, both brackets continued as they were, producing sound action but little more. I was glad to see Dakota Kai and Raquel Gonzalez overcome Kacy Catanzaro and Kayden Carter, as the latter still seems lacking the polish for any further emphasis. As personalities, I remain unsure and physically, their raw potential still needs time to develop in my view. This particular match was enjoyable enough though, as was Legado Del Fantasma’s win over Lucha House Party. It’s fine, but nothing anyone will be revisiting years down the line.

In fairness, those matches weren’t NXT’s only hook this week, as Royal Rumble winner Edge also made an appearance. I’ve seen lots of praise for his presence on this show but frankly, I found the whole thing to be somewhat hollow. Edge effectively stood between Finn Balor and Pete Dunne, embracing the NXT brand and in theory, elevating the title resting on Balor’s shoulder. That was certainly his intention too, but it felt more manufactured than I’d like, bordering on patronising even. It doesn’t help how much better Edge’s delivery is either, as Drew McIntyre found out this week.

More on the male Rumble winner later though, as I’m not sure any of us are taking the NXT option seriously. Nonetheless, I’m glad that segment hit for others, as the core idea was definitely logical. On the other hand, I remain bemused by Toni Storm’s handling. It’s nothing horrific, don’t get me wrong but there’s no spark to the whole thing, Storm is simply a heel now and I’m waiting for her to go through the gears. That’s in terms of performance as well as momentum too, as Storm continues to be competent without truly connecting.

She has obvious star potential of course, which makes her inability to piece it all together even more frustrating. Perhaps I’m missing something, as Storm is certainly good, I’m just waiting for her to separate herself from the pack. In fairness, bolder booking would help, especially so soon after a heel turn. Then again, NXT was nothing if not bold with Santos Escobar, as he basically dominated Curt Stallion while a surprising programme with Karrion Kross took shape. Stallion can really sell, and I enjoyed their match but the direction? Hmmm.

I’ll have to see the endgame of course but on paper, it looks like an unusual choice for both men. This is two heels slotted in completely contrasting positions, hard to see any benefit unless Kross is being sacrificed for the Cruiserweight Champion. That’s not only unlikely but frankly, it’d be nonsensical, regardless of my gripes with Kross’ game. Either way, I enjoyed NXT this week, the main event’s quality alone was enough to ensure that much.


Featuring both of last Sunday’s Royal Rumble winners, SmackDown opted for a surprisingly patient approach, concluding the programme without a decision made. In terms of on-screen progression, it was actually a somewhat quiet week for WWE, which was the last thing I expected on Monday morning. With that in mind, let’s revisit last weekend’s PPV, as that remains the real headline. Closing the event with a triumphant Edge, WWE inspired the latest chapter of an ongoing debate surrounding their roster’s age and stagnation.

In my view at least, that’s a very real issue and has been for some time but in a vacuum, Edge was a logical enough choice. When the more youthful alternatives are Daniel Bryan, Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura, you aren’t missing much in that regard. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d have personally preferred Bryan, but Edge fits a similar bill, even fresher after his lengthy absence. This wasn’t a case of tomorrow’s star being ignored, it was a case of choosing between legends that Reigns can conquer, plain and simple.

Granted, that’s rather assumptive of me. Firstly, Edge’s WrestleMania opponent remains unknown, but the best fit seems obvious. McIntyre doesn’t need the resentment of an all-babyface clash with Edge and NXT seems unfathomable, so that leaves Reigns. Their character contrast is the perfect way to portray Edge’s comeback narrative, pairing him with the promotion’s most dynamic male star. For me though, Reigns has to win. I mean, he doesn’t have to as in the end, their decision will make no difference whatsoever but even still, I’d deem an Edge title win to be short-sighted.

The reason that Bryan was so appealing in this role is just as apparent with Edge: it’s the reality that they can lose to Reigns without really losing a thing. They are cemented stars, established legends, that’s the beauty of a familiar face. For now, it seems that Reigns will continue to battle Kevin Owens, which concerns me for all the reasons that it’s been concerning me for weeks now. You have to be careful here, as this is swiftly becoming redundant and if not handled properly, could render Owens something similar.

If Edge was at least slightly divisive, Bianca Belair was a far more acclaimed choice. In a sign of things to come, Belair closed the Rumble opposite Rhea Ripley, two of the division’s brightest stars. With RAW’s women struggling for any direction whatsoever, Belair seems set to remain on SmackDown, challenging Sasha Banks at WrestleMania. This week, we got a preview of that programme’s potential, as well as a reminder of the challenges that may await. It’s a babyface – babyface match, but one half of that equation is far less pronounced than the other.

Belair has become a refreshing protagonist, quite traditional in her authentic, sincere likeability. On the other hand, Banks’ ‘Boss’ persona exists closer to shades of grey. She’s a babyface, just one only ever two steps away from turning heel. Against Belair, Banks seems destined to become the in-ring antagonist and as the champion, she’s inevitably the status quo here too. After all, Banks is the standard, an established centrepiece standing in the way of Belair’s ascension. That’s a simple story, but it naturally positions Banks as the de facto villain.

That’s fine unless it stands in opposition to WWE’s intentions. In which case, this could muddy the waters in a fashion that concerns me, simply removing Belair from her currently pronounced position. Time will tell though as we all have far bigger worries right now, with Carmella inexplicably remaining in the title scene. SmackDown’s exact route to WrestleMania seems unclear, but the endgame feels completely locked in and ideally, that’ll lead Banks and Belair to a WrestleMania main event. Physically, they are almost certain to make magic.

Elsewhere, Daniel Bryan continued his tour of selflessness, again losing clean to Cesaro. What is there left to say about this man’s mindset? Probably even less than there is to say about these two performers, two of their generation’s greats. This was another thrilling little match, the latest in an emerging collection for Cesaro in 2021. Though it’s hard to have much faith in the planning behind these things, the re-emphasis of Cesaro is good television if nothing else, and the same goes for Shinsuke.

Finally, Big E remained Intercontinental Champion, pinning Apollo Crews after Sami Zayn had been thwarted once more. This whole scene is entertaining enough, though I continue to want more for E. It’s not that he’s being wasted or anything close to it, I just think that on a roster filled with talent needing something steady, E is already ready for a far bolder role. Basically, I’m not sure what’s being achieved here, as in my view, E’s time in New Day gave him enough organic progression for a lifetime.

In addition, I hope that Crews isn’t headed in the classic ‘bitter loser turns heel’ direction, but I sense that he very much is. That’d be a shame but in fairness, this roster needs rebalancing, so I understand it. Overall, SmackDown did a masterful job of filling time without really achieving much of anything. When producing this many hours of television, that’s an art in itself, so I can’t complain much. I can wait when it comes to the bigger picture, just entertain me in the meantime.

Well folks, that concludes this week’s edition of ‘Takes, Takes & More Takes.’ Got a take? Send it over on the Twitter, @JoeHulbert! Be nice though and try to disguise any critiques as compliments. Thanks pals, speak soon!

Royal Rumble Week, Shane Taylor Promotions Prospers | Takes, Takes & More Takes #15

One of the wrestling calendar’s most exciting weeks, WWE’s Royal Rumble event is almost here. The hype doesn’t need much assistance either, as fans continue to ponder the list of candidates for Sunday’s two signature matches. RAW and SmackDown still have a role to play though, building some momentum and perhaps, even hinting at the finishes that await. Elsewhere, ROH looks to kick off their 2021 in style, continuing on the path that led them to an excellent Final Battle PPV.


After last week’s controversial closing segment, Monday Night RAW refused to relent, boldly running it back. Alexa Bliss and Asuka were the main event once more, with the RAW Women’s Title now hanging in the balance. If you found their prior bout to be far-fetched, this will have left you dizzied, only featuring more “supernatural” elements. It was nothing if not noteworthy though and for better or worse, the insanity is hard to ignore. I actually thought it was quite effective in the end, building genuine drama before Orton finally floored Bliss with the RKO.

These matches will be divisive because they symbolise a genre that simply can’t suit any other setting. It isn’t purely cinematic as the ring gives a sense of familiarity until the filmmaking begins, causing opinions to explode. I understand that, as this stuff has never really been my thing but personally, I find the demands for “realism” to be puzzling. I’d love realism but I’d need a time machine to expect such a thing in pro wrestling, let alone WWE in particular. Look, it’s stretching things even further perhaps, but this is a unique scenario, so that’s not surprising either.

Now, let’s ponder what all of this means. If Bliss’ usage will now once again revolve around Orton, this last two weeks were short-sighted to say the least. She’s basically beaten Asuka twice, so you’ve damaged your champion in a direction that wasn’t even necessary. That blow would be lessened if Asuka is at least “changed” by their matches, but even that’s not ideal. On the other hand, this could’ve just delayed the inevitable, as many still expect Bliss to win Sunday’s Royal Rumble match. Personally, I doubt that.

To me at least, this isn’t the kind of angle that precedes a Rumble win, as I wouldn’t be surprised if the RKO even sparks an absence of sorts for Alexa. To me, this was about giving Wyatt a reason to return, which I’d imagine will come in the midst of the men’s Rumble match. That doesn’t mean Bliss won’t eventually be factored in of course, potentially re-entering the title scene closer to WrestleMania. Right now, I’d expect Bliss to be opposite Asuka and Charlotte Flair in the event’s title tilt, developing a divide between them.

It feels absurd to leave Asuka out of that match, which in fairness, has never stopped them before. Even still, this persona for Bliss isn’t one made for in-ring thrills, especially opposite Flair so in a multi-woman scenario, those limitations could be hidden. As for Wyatt, I’d expect him and Orton to continue their controversial conflict until WrestleMania, eventually clashing in a sequel to last year’s Firefly Funhouse match. That’s logical enough in my view, because people loved the original and with Cena covered, Orton’s a natural second chapter.

The above paragraphs tell a tale in themselves honestly as once again, there isn’t much else to tackle. RAW is a painfully dry programme, lacking any spark of personality, just meandering along without any sense of development or progression. If Bliss’ shenanigans are polarising, the rest pursues apathy on its best days, with not even Goldberg sparking much debate anymore. Fans still fear a title change but in truth, there isn’t much passion to the whole thing, it’s just another Goldberg match. There’s no hook, simply enjoy the finisher-fest.

Then again, there was one other talking point, as Edge’s return garnered rare consensus acclaim. Announcing his Royal Rumble entry in a powerful promo, Edge swiftly had viewers re-thinking their latest fantasy booking plans. Edge feels like a feasible Rumble winner, though I personally sense that his hopes of reclaiming world title gold will have to wait. Wyatt programme aside, Orton could still be headed Edge’s way at WrestleMania, but I’d currently predict AJ Styles. In recent weeks, Styles has been halting Royal Rumble dreams and eliminating Edge would be an exclamation mark for that trend.

RAW’s ‘Road to WrestleMania’ feels completely unclear and depending on your perspective, that could be praise or criticism. It’s certainly unpredictable, which I accept the appeal of but even still, I can’t dismiss my concerns that in truth, those plans still aren’t set. If so, a busy few months are ahead because frankly, anything is possible.


Now months removed from the Pure Title tournament’s conclusion, Ring of Honor continue to regain my faith. Though impressive, it wasn’t difficult to produce those initial bouts, embracing a format and colouring within the lines afterwards. It was after Jonathan Gresham’s almost inevitable title win that the true challenge began though, trying to incorporate that style within the overall product. That sounded like a tough task to me, but they’ve actually managed it with relative ease, adding variety without harming the core presentation of purity.

The Foundation are helpful in that regard, allowing the narrative a constant outlet on ROH TV. You can always feature one of those four performers, allowing things to take shape without overexposing the act. it’s a simple story that extends beyond each episode’s ups and downs, especially when contrasted as it was this week. Gresham, Jay Lethal and Tracy Williams represented the faction, taking on Shane Taylor Promotions in a six-man main event. On paper, that match has obvious physical potential but in one promo, Taylor painted a different picture.

He drew a line between his unit and The Foundation, taking a firm stance opposite their supposed intentions of purifying the promotion. Taylor is one of my favourite characters in wrestling, breaking away from the genre’s often simplistic archetypes but avoiding a bland shade of grey. This isn’t a persona that’s comfortable with your indifference, as he actually has a far stronger identity than the industry norm. It’s a wonderful fit anywhere but especially in ROH, as Taylor is allowed to take his own path, speaking his own truth.

Alongside Taylor are Kaun and Moses, the Soldiers of Savagery. Their ceiling goes without saying, pairing an imposing physical presence with impressive athletic range. The placement with Taylor only accelerates their progress too, giving them a presence beyond the tag team ranks. Taylor’s promo time makes them increasingly familiar faces too, while also making matches like this week’s headliner possible. The match itself delivered and then some, producing excitement but perhaps even more importantly than that, further accentuating the contrast between both teams.

Taylor and co refused to conform, battering the purists with power, and forcing them into an uncharacteristically physical affair. That’s a simple story but the execution really captured it deftly and best of all, the finish of choice made the whole thing rather emphatic too. Taylor pinned Lethal clean in the middle, finding comfort in the chaos that his team had created. It was perfect for that particular narrative while also achieving two things: continuing Taylor’s collection of credibility and advancing the quiet trend of Lethal’s struggles. Perfection.

As is probably obvious by now, that match is the standout for me but in their first two “proper” episodes of 2021, ROH has yet to miss. We’ve had a Pure Rules bout on both shows, maintaining the critically acclaimed presentation of recent months. Those matches are consistently engaging, really allowing Josh Woods to flourish in particular. I’m thankful that Flip Gordon will be moving on however, as even after the spectacular match with Gresham, he never felt truly at home in that division. In fairness, the on-screen story matched that perception.

These latest tapings certainly weren’t hurt by the presence of Dragon Lee either, bringing the Television Title back to ROH television. Defending his belt against Rey Horus, Lee’s in-ring excellence was a welcome addition, bringing the same spark that was so palpable at Final Battle. The current ROH roster isn’t without talent but Dragon Lee is something different, truly one of the world’s absolute best. Horus was a worthy foe, but Lee is simply spectacular and the more often he defends his title, the better this product will be.

In terms of schedule and structure, there’s still a sense of uncertainty to this promotion. With that being said, if you’re willing to trust them with an hour of your week, I doubt that you’ll be disappointed. Their current format won’t be for everyone but if it’s to your taste, you’ll swiftly be immersed. There’s a commitment to the whole thing and a refreshing attention to detail, which only increases my personal investment. ROH is a distance away from the glory days, but they are trending in the right direction and for now, that’s a triumph worth acknowledging.


Tasked with providing that familiar visual of every Royal Rumble build, SmackDown got a little creative. Concluding their programme with three connected matches, the blue brand positioned Michael Cole perfectly for his “if you think this is crazy, imagine Sunday” belter. It was entertaining enough, even if slightly irritating and in the case of halting Bryan vs. Styles, almost infuriating. These segments are what they are however and if nothing else, this at least felt genuinely chaotic, featuring some good work along the way.

As it has been for months now though, SmackDown is about Roman Reigns, especially throughout his conflict with Kevin Owens. This week, those two put the final touches on their sublime programme, capturing this perfect contrast once more. Reigns’ spite was delivered in a cold and manipulative fashion, goading Owens until the challenger exploded with emotion. It’s all so simple but most wrestling highlights are, empowering the performers to shine. It’s a basic back and forth talking segment, talent can do the rest and in fairness, decent dialogue doesn’t hurt either.

I remain intrigued by the thought that Owens could finally conquer Reigns at WrestleMania, though I accept that’s unlikely. This is a throwback chase nonetheless and an uplifting conclusion to that journey would be refreshing. It’s hard to find fresh superlatives for both men at this juncture, as they continue to make their case for the industry’s finest overall performer. Beyond that, this is the kind of rivalry that should be remembered for years to come, combining in-ring drama with storytelling substance. It’s remarkable, regardless of how many chapters remain.

Elsewhere, SmackDown featured a match that perhaps naively, I was beginning to expect for WrestleMania. In fairness, this outing doesn’t erase that possibility, but Sunday might. Either way, Bayley and Bianca Belair had a decent bout, even if nothing above the general TV standard. This felt more like a bridge to something bigger, as they clearly left some things on the table here. Even still, I enjoyed their chemistry and love Bayley as an opponent for Belair, as her understanding of structure really paces Bianca well.

Belair has wonderful instincts in terms of selling, which is a dynamic match for her spectacular offence. The presence and overall package go without saying of course, making Belair a natural candidate for Sunday’s Rumble match. As you’d expect, there is still a palpable roughness around Belair’s in-ring edges, which prevents things from transitioning as smoothly as they one day will. Bayley negates that rather well though, working with a focus that really neatly channels Belair’s potential. These two women could do better and ideally, they’ll get a chance to also.

The Royal Rumble could allow that progression too, with one eliminating the other to elevate their programme. That’s a textbook play, especially fitting within Bayley’s continued resentment towards Belair. That doesn’t necessarily have to lead them towards WrestleMania either, but it would at least ensure another match. Personally, I’d continue down this current path as I think that Bayley can make Belair better and in this particular case, there’s no rush. Belair is a can’t miss star, let’s make sure that she’s as ready as possible.

Finally, SmackDown’s Royal Rumble build added one last piece to the story between Sasha Banks and Carmella. Well, they almost did anyway, with Banks appearing in a short segment opposite Reginald. Look, filler feuds are nothing new and if this ended a month ago, it actually would’ve been quite effective. Unfortunately, this roster inexplicably lacks the depth to do that comfortably, so this was extended beyond its reach. There’s no substance to this conflict and with only so many notes to hit, the aforementioned Reginald has become a necessity.

I’m sure the match itself will be solid enough though, as Banks’ sheer effort refuses to accept anything less. Overall, this wasn’t the strongest episode of SmackDown, but it ticked the most important box, completing the Reigns – Owens build in style. The rest, well its mostly mindless silliness, but there’s some good wrestling hidden in there if you squint.

Well folks, that concludes this week’s edition of ‘Takes, Takes & More Takes.’ Got a take? Send it over on the Twitter, @JoeHulbert! Be nice though and try to disguise any critiques as compliments. Thanks pals, speak soon!

Considering SmackDown’s 2021 Royal Rumble Routes (Part 2/2)

Last October at Hell in a Cell, Sasha Banks claimed the SmackDown Women’s Title in an instant classic, appearing finally on track fulfil herpotential. Since then though, that process has been somewhat slowed. For all of SmackDown’s recent acclaim, Banks’ handling has been less spectacular, finding herself locked in a stalled programme with Carmella. Their initial PPV bout was impressive but little of substance has followed, leaving Banks in a less dynamic position than she entered.

Not all is lost though, as SmackDown still enters the ‘Road to WrestleMania’ with one of the promotion’s biggest stars as champion. In addition, there are some top contenders in position too, though it may be more a case of quality than quantity. Regardless, you can be the judge of that, so let’s get to it.

Women’s Royal Rumble Match

The FreshEST Match

SmackDown’s resident rising star, Bianca Belair’s potential requires little debate. Belair is a can’t miss talent, shining with each and every appearance. Since arriving on the blue brand, Belair’s ascension has been steadied, seemingly pacing things in a fashion that makes WrestleMania feasible. Paired with Bayley, Belair is becoming an increasingly familiar face, seemingly prepared for something blockbuster in the near future. Naturally, that leads to some assumptions regarding the Royal Rumble, placing Belair at the top of any list like this.

Though both are currently babyfaces, Banks vs. Belair feels like a natural matchup too, both brand-new while also physically intriguing. This feels like a possible show-stealer, a raw collision course between two characters simply desperate to cement themselves as number one. Belair isn’t the safe choice on SmackDown, but she may be the most exciting, a fresh route that would be almost impossible to question.

One Last Chapter, Again

In some form or fashion, Sasha Banks and Bayley have spent much of their main roster stints alongside each other. Though frustrating at times, the results have generally been good, producing great matches if nothing else. Last year, that combined with committed storytelling too, allowing these famed rivals to reignite their conflict at last, battling away in dramatic, emotive affairs. After such a long time as champion last year, Bayley warrants some thought here, surely requiring a position of note at WrestleMania.

Historically, non-title programmes have seldom been rewarded to female stars though, which would inevitably send Bayley back Banks’ way. This obviously isn’t a fresh match or for me at least, even a particularly interesting one. However, it’s the most box-office matchup currently available on SmackDown and with two nights to fill, it’s the reliable path for another classic too. In fairness, a WrestleMania match still eludes these two also, which certainly doesn’t hurt their case.

Be Hardcore, Have Both

Perhaps more likely than either of the options above is one that combines them both, a triple threat match for the SmackDown Women’s Title. Bayley and Belair already have their programme underway, almost certainly continuing things in the Royal Rumble. In fact, that’s what leads me in this prediction, assuming that these two will eliminate each other and allow a RAW participant to victor. From there, things can clearly go in a few different directions. That includes guiding the brand towards either singles bout, with Bayley or Belair vanquishing the other along the way.

On the other hand though, their conflict could simply develop, slowly building before eventually including Banks. I don’t personally love this option, as far too often, it allows the champion’s purpose to be limited to her title alone. That definitely feels as though it could be the case here, but Banks’ history with Bayley would help and either way, this choice certainly wouldn’t be sacrificing anything in terms of in-ring quality. It’s not my favourite choice, but I do believe that it’s the most likely.

Bringing Brutality to the Blue Brand

With a two-night WrestleMania on its way, maybe there’s a chance for SmackDown to step outside of the box. After all, there’s now sufficient time for a non-title bout between Bayley and Belair, which while unlikely, would leave Banks without a title challenger. Though not untalented, the blue brand’s current group doesn’t contain an answer to that either, but NXT’s might. Rhea Ripley is only weeks removed from seemingly concluding her time in “developmental,” naturally leading to some Royal Rumble speculation.

If Belair is the division’s premier rising star, Ripley is right alongside her, bringing a staggering in-ring skill to her already palpable physical presence. If Belair’s time hasn’t yet arrived, then perhaps Ripley’s should, winning the Rumble and setting the stage for a potential classic with Banks. Few matches on the table are more enticing than that one, adding another star to SmackDown’s relatively limited main event scene. Prior to producing these pieces, Ripley felt far more required on RAW but frankly, there’s an opening for Ripley here that frankly, may not currently exist elsewhere.

A Rowdy Return

Ronda Rousey, you know the deal by now folks.

Not much of substance to this really, it’s just something that I’m fully prepared to write before every Rumble. If Ronda Rousey is ready to return, she’ll win this match and face Sasha Banks at WrestleMania. I don’t expect this to be the case, but it’s a rumour that’ll swirl until she actually returns, so she has to be listed here.


Compared to RAW, this was a far less alarming venture, which was admittedly unsurprising. There are no hidden gems here friends, it is what it is. This division doesn’t lack talent but there’s a very apparent gap between the brand’s “big three” and all those surrounding them. That’s not necessarily true in terms of skill however, simply the result of positioning and presentation. They have two women capable of filling this vacancy and in fairness, both are formidable. Not a bad scenario, simply an uninteresting one for projects such as this.