We're deep on the Road to WrestleMania. The full card is finally coming into focus, and it's now just a matter of time before the wrestling world descends on New York and New Jersey for the biggest wrestling week of the year.
Anyone else excited? I know it's not just me.
Fastlane Delivers Pre-Mania Thrills
Sunday's Fastlane event was the final big marker on the Road to WrestleMania, and outside of some questionable and convoluted storytelling decisions (which we'll get into shortly), it delivered in spades.
Especially in the match quality department.
Say what you will about the weird decision-making that somehow led to the Triple Threat match between Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens and...Mustafa Ali, who was not scheduled for any match on the show. But once you got past the storytelling, it was clear the three men involved are among the best workers on the entire WWE roster, much less Smackdown itself.
Having Owens back as a babyface is refreshing, even if it'll take fans a little time to get used to his new Everyman, family-loving character. Giving him the Stone Cold Stunner as a finisher should help with that transition. But despite the uneasiness with his character, KO as a wrestler and in-ring technician? He's one of the best, and he even narrowly avoided a gruesome injury when a front flip over the top rope nearly resulted in smashing his own face against the corner of the announcer's table.
Ali once again more than justified his out-of-nowhere placement near the upper regions of the card with another stellar performance that served as a perfect complement to Bryan and Owens.
But it was Bryan who unsurprisingly was the performer of the night. His heel turn has rejuvenated his career in ways that should have been expected and yet were not, and his new in-ring style is actually safer for his long-term health despite appearing to be far more brutal.
What Bryan has done is revert to the old nasty, deliberate heel role he excelled in during his Ring of Honor days, and it's given him a brand new lease on life. Literally.
Other excellent matches on this show: the Triple Threat Raw tag title bout between Aleister Black/Ricochet, The Revival and Bobby Roode/Chad Gable; the United States title four-way match that resulted from Samoa Joe winning his first main roster singles title last week on SmackDown (more on that in a second); and the main event reformation of The Shield against Bobby Lashley, Baron Corbin and Drew McIntyre.
The PPV immediately preceding WrestleMania is usually just a way to drive storylines forward. Fastlane 2019 was so much more.
It's Samoa Joe's Time...Finally
That it took this long for Samoa Joe to finally win a singles championship on the main roster is ridiculous.
Joe is believable, intense and a great worker in the ring; he has been for a long time. But he's also one of the best promo guys in the entire company, giving him the total package Vince McMahon typically looks for when picking his top talent.
Here's hoping this run with the United States title is the start of a push toward being one of the top guys in the company. It's long overdue.
Becky Lynch's Convoluted Course
Becky Lynch's journey to WrestleMania should have gone a little something like this: 1) Win the Royal Rumble 2) Beat Ronda Rousey at WrestleMania for the Raw Women's Championship.
But it hasn't gone this way at all. Instead of the ultra-effective and simple story that could have unfurled, WWE has gone a different and far more confusing route. The end result? The Irish Lass Kicker is far less popular than she was the night of her Rumble win.
Fastlane did not help matters one bit.
Instead of Lynch scoring a hard-fought win over Charlotte Flair after overcoming her injuries and earning what was rightfully already hers, The Man instead was inserted into WrestleMania after...getting kicked one time by Ronda Rousey and winning by DQ. Sure, she was finally in the big match, but she didn't get there in any sort of strong fashion.
The flat crowd response to Lynch's "win" should've been an indication that WWE has gotten too cute with her march to the top. Let's hope the rest of the route is as direct as possible.
Will Dean Stay or Will He Go?
From all reports, it appears Dean Ambrose is still intent on leaving WWE when his contract expires at the end of April.
It's strange, though, because the company has decided to do something it has never really done before, at least not since CM Punk informed the world he would be leaving after beating John Cena at Money in the Bank almost eight years ago.
It is telling us he's leaving on WWE broadcasts. Michael Cole and others have repeatedly noted Ambrose has decided not to sign a new WWE contract and will be leaving at the end of his deal.
It's not only unprecedented, but it's also a thing that is usually impossible to imagine. WWE likes to pretend it is the only wrestling company in the world and generally refuses to acknowledge life outside its universe.
It's so unique, in fact, that it makes me think Ambrose has decided to stay and won't be leaving after all. This isn't something I've been told; it's just something I tend to assume given my own experience with WWE's history.
Braun Strowman: Comedy Wrestler
Remember back in the day when Braun Strowman was the most popular wrestler in WWE? When fans were salivating for him to beat Brock Lesnar and win the universal title?
It wasn't so long ago that Strowman was on the ascent. That was before his ill-advised heel turn that lasted for less time than Ambrose's own short turn. That heel turn hurt The Monster Among Men as did his complete inability to beat Lesnar in a big match.
And now? It looks like Strowman's big Mania moment will be facing Colin Jost and Michael Che, the head writers of Saturday Night Live (and hosts of the only thing left on SNL that's still funny, Weekend Update).
Look, I get it. Celebrity involvement is a big thing for WrestleMania. It has been from the start. But it's one thing to have future American President Donald Trump acting as a manager for Bobby Lashley; it's another entirely to take one of your most popular and impressive acts and have him wrestle two comedy writers on the biggest show of the year.
She's Shooting! Or Is She? She Isn't...
Rousey's time as a babyface came to an ignominious end last week out of necessity.
Lynch is clearly the fan's choice for the biggest star in WWE, not just the biggest female star, and Rousey started getting booed around the same time the fans latched onto The Man.
In order to tell the most effective story at WrestleMania, Rousey had to turn. Pro wrestling's most compelling stories are about a babyface overcoming the odds and beating the bad guy. The former UFC star had to be the bad guy.
All of that is fine. But then Rousey went and set the internet on fire with a video she posted talking about wrestling being scripted and fake, fans wondered if she was "shooting" (the insider term for those moments when real life happens in the fictional wrestling world) and talked about how unprofessional she was being and how it wasn't fair to Lynch.
So, here's the thing on that: Rousey wasn't shooting. At all. Sure, she's probably bummed all of you who decided you like Lynch more than you like her; Rowdy has never been known as someone who, despite her hard exterior, doesn't care what other people think. So yeah, she probably doesn't enjoy being booed in the way other wrestlers might.
But if you think everything she does right now isn't being approved by Vince McMahon, you have no idea how personally and deeply invested the WWE chairman has historically been in his Mania main events.
If you see something promoting Rousey vs. Lynch vs. Charlotte at WrestleMania in any sort of way, it's been approved by McMahon.
...But That Doesn't Mean It's Any Good
Rousey might have been going with the script, but it's a dumb script. Plain and simple.
Pro wrestling doesn't work when we're reminded of how fake or fictional it can be; it works when we're driven to think about how we know everything is scripted, but there's a chance this thing might be real. And that's not what's happening with Rousey's pseudo-shoot comments.
All she's doing is forcing us to stop suspending our disbelief, and it's hard enough to get us to that point in the first place without ruining it with something like this.
New Japan Cup Delivering Thrills and Spills
If great wrestling is your thing, you should probably be watching New Japan Pro-Wrestling already.
And if you're not subscribed to New Japan World, I don't know what to tell you. It's less than $9 a month, and you get access to live-streaming and archived events from the best wrestling company on the planet.
The New Japan Cup, currently ongoing, is another great example. If you decide to check it out, start with the Kota Ibushi vs. Tetsuya Naito match from the first night. It's one of the more brutal, beautiful matches you'll ever see.
Seriously, though—it's not easy to watch. There's a lot of Naito and Ibushi being dropped straight on their heads, which makes you wonder what kind of effect New Japan's hard-hitting style will have on the lives of men like Ibushi, Naito, Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi once the bright lights have dimmed.
NXT Tapings Set New Course (Warning: Spoilers)
The unfortunate neck injury to Tommaso Ciampa that required him to undergo surgery this week resulted in Triple H and the NXT creative team having to scramble to figure out a new direction for TakeOver in New York in a few weeks.
I'm pleased with the direction: A new NXT champion will be determined in a 2-out-of-3 Falls match between Johnny Gargano and Adam Cole.
It feels like the logical thing here would be for Cole to win the championship, particularly since Gargano has already been elevated to the main roster and is likely to stay there.
However, the notion of Gargano never actually winning the NXT championship at a TakeOver event is a bit of a sad one, and for that reason, here's hoping he gets the big win he's been chasing for the past two years. He can lose the title to Cole after that.
Dick Beyer Dies
I'd like to close out this week by offering my condolences to the family of Dick "The Destroyer" Beyer. He may be unfamiliar to you, but he was once one of the biggest international stars in the history of pro wrestling.
If you want to find out more about The Destroyer, you should leap into a YouTube rabbit hole and check out some of his best work.