Far be it from me to go for low-hanging fruit, but I wasn’t mad keen on WWE Fastlane this year. I don’t intend to do a full-on blow-by-blow breakdown of each individual match, ‘cos goodness knows there are already enough places you can find that sort of thing (a quick search on WordPress alone and I’ve found a decent one here), but I do want to have a little reflection on what’s going on in WWE heading into Wrestlemania.
Let me preface all this by saying that I am a wrestling fan on the internet, which in a loose sense makes me part of the so-called ‘Internet Wrestling Community’. The IWC is known these days, rightly or wrongly (and don’t get me wrong here, a lot of the IWC are actually very moderate and well-reasoned in their opinions; it’s just that the vocal minority has become the popular image), for being a bunch of hard-to-please smarks who’ll go out of their way to criticise the product and whose opinion can flip-flop at the drip-drop of a hip-hop hat. Take Roman Reigns, whose time in the immensely successful Shield faction had fans the world over gushing over how big of a breakout star he was going to be, but whose first forays into a solo career were almost instantly shot down with cries of ‘now his weaknesses are exposed, now he sucks’. I don’t want to be overly critical, shitting on something where it’s undeserved, but my opinion is influenced for better or worse by the fact that I do lurk on Wreddit, listen to podcasts about pro wrestling, and otherwise embrace the critical discussion that the Internet’s rather good at fostering.
That said, I do understand that WWE in particular (other promotions, too, but perhaps WWE most so) isn’t really aimed at ‘smart mark’ fans. It’s best enjoyed when taken with a giant grain of salt, when seen through the eyes of the excited kid who loves the good guys and hates the bad guys. So I realise that the feuds that Wrestlemania’s probably going to be built around aren’t necessarily going to be ones that I’m going to love. There’s not going to be an amazing Cesaro match in which he just puts on a darn excellent technical show, because that’s not really what Wrestlemania’s about. It’s about the spectacle of the thing. And, heck, I’m going to be enjoying the shit out of Wrestlemania whether it’s the matches I would have dreamed up or not.
Right, with all that out of the way: Fastlane.
There’s obviously one big talking point coming out of Fastlane, and that’s Bill Goldberg’s continued run of one-minute wonders (I timed his match on this show: 27 seconds), and we’ll get to that. Starting a little lower down the card, though, let’s talk about cruiserweights. (Yeah, I’m not going all the way down the card. I barely paid attention to the tag championship match or… whatever that thing about Rusev and Jinder Mahal was.)
First things first: NEVILLE IS A BOSS. I remember when I was first getting into NXT, which was around the time the WWE Network was just starting out. NXT Arrival was the first thing to be broadcast live on said streaming service (which is only $9.99 a month, don’t you know), and also happened to be a really great show which hooked me on NXT, a brand I wasn’t really too aware of before that. There were probably more matches on the show than I remember, but the ones that stick in my mind are the two-out-of-three-falls match between Sami Zayn and Cesaro and the first NXT Women’s Championship match between Paige and Emma (who really needs to be allowed back in the ring soon, ‘cos her later heel work on NXT was just great). The main event, which I have to admit I wasn’t as enthralled with as much as either of the two I just mentioned, saw Adrian Neville (as he then was; RIP the ‘Adrian’ bit) dethroning Bo Dallas in a ladder match to become the fourth NXT Champion. Over the next couple of TakeOver events, Neville defended his championship against various combinations of Sami Zayn, Tyler Breeze and Tyson Kidd (sorely missed), and gradually began to devolve into a character who wasn’t quite a heel, but was willing to do whatever it took to hold on to his title. The work he did in the back end of his NXT championship run was really fantastic, and his main roster work as an exciting flippy dude but generic character just never quite clicked as well. So I was pretty hyped when he turned heel and started running over the cruiserweight division, having been totally clueless as to why he hadn’t been in it from the start. In short, I really, really like heel Neville. I mean, look at him! He’s an absolute beast, a jacked-up mofo with springs for feet, and he absolutely should be tanking over most of the cruiserweights. He’s basically Brock Lesnar, if Lesnar were eight inches shorter and flippy as heck.
Not to take away from Jack Gallagher, who did some great work in this match and took some seriously heroic bumps. I love his little headstand-in-the-corner move, and I think it worked really well against Neville because it called back (if unintentionally) to a move face Neville used to pull out all the time, the double handspring out of the corner. The guy just understands how to connect with a crowd and play the role of the affable but tough gentleman; he works well as an opponent for someone like Neville, who’s out to prove that he can beat anyone and everyone. I wasn’t surprised that Neville did pick up the win here following a few nasty moves; the release German looked as if it nearly killed Gallagher, and the return of the Red Arrow was beautiful as ever. I think it worked here; Neville’s dropped the Red Arrow from his arsenal for being too much of a face move, but pulling it out to put Gallagher away when he’s just so perfectly lined up made sense.
Fastlane also featured a Women’s Championship match, which… I’m not sure how to feel about. On the one hand, the end of Charlotte’s unbeaten PPV streak might mean the end of a wobbly first year spent playing hot potato for the new Women’s Championship, which has already traded hands something like nine or ten times since its inception at Wrestlemania 32. On the other, I don’t think the match was as good as Bayley and Charlotte are capable of. It certainly wasn’t good enough to merit Charlotte’s achievement coming to an abrupt end at a B-level show. I don’t think Sasha needed to interfere here, either; yeah, it set up her involvement in a Triple Threat at Mania, confirmed on Raw last night, but after Charlotte held up her end by refusing to allow Dana Brooke to interfere, it felt a bit… well, it sort of felt as if Charlotte’s claims that Bayley’s just a cheater who can’t do it without Sasha might have been vindicated a little.
Oh, and while we’re on Sasha Banks, her match with Nia Jax was actually pretty decent. Nia’s one of those wrestlers who a good opponent can tell a really good story with; Bayley and Asuka have both defended their NXT Women’s Championships against her, both finding creative ways to overcome the size and strength disparity, and Sasha did it again last night. Do I think Sasha should have won? Possibly not, since Nia’s still relatively fresh on the main roster and could use a bit more of a steamroll streak, but I figured they wanted the feud to continue, which would only really work if Sasha evened up the score between them. That was kind of rendered moot on Raw last night after Sasha apparently moved on to the title picture, a picture in which Nia occupied none of the frame, so I don’t see what the point was other than to make Sasha seem deserving of a title shot. In the end, I wasn’t bored by any of the action in the Raw women’s division at Fastlane, which is definitely a good thing, but I’m not sure that I was on the same wavelength as what it was trying to accomplish.
After Nia’s destructive ways were brought low, so were Braun Strowman’s, as Roman Reigns overcame the odds (surprise surprise) to end the monster’s winning streak. On one level, I hate that WWE spent so long building Braun up into such an effective monster, developing a green powerlifter into a guy capable of putting on legitimately good matches and coming across as a total destructive force, then just fed him to Roman. That said, I thought the match was better than I expected by some degree, and should quiet the idea that either Reigns or Strowman is a bad worker whose weaknesses are exposed in longer singles matches. Both did a great job in their respective roles, even if I wasn’t overjoyed by what those roles turned out to be. I guess if Strowman had to lose to somebody, at least Reigns is at the top of the kayfabe power levels and he didn’t get rolled up by one of the Shining Stars or something. The development the next night on Raw, which made it seem that Roman’s set to face Undertaker at Mania (with the possibility of some Braun involvement)… well, we’ll have to see how that unfolds.
And that brings us to the main event. 27 seconds. I just… well, I can’t have much to say about this because there wasn’t much of it. Owens spent a good few minutes just walking around before the bell rang; I almost wonder whether, knowing how short the match itself would be, he decided to eke it out as long as possible just so he wouldn’t feel that he’d done his entrance and gone straight home again sans championship. Did Jericho need to show up? Well, not strictly; the result would doubtless have been the same whether Owens was distracted or not. But it did continue the excellent work in the Owens-Jericho feud, a Mania match being confirmed on Raw, and that can’t be a bad thing.
On Goldberg… I don’t know. He’s doing a good job in these tiny flashes of matches that he’s given, but I’m hesitant to get excited about his Mania match with Lesnar. He’s only had two singles matches, lasting about three minutes altogether, and hasn’t shown that he can do anything other than a couple of signature moves, so I worry that the Mania match will be more of the same: a couple of Germans and F5s from Brock, a spear and a jackhammer from Goldberg and that’s your lot. That said, I realised on Raw that the first real bump he’s taken since returning is the F5 he took from Brock last night, and that seemed like a big deal. So far, he hasn’t had to take any hits or deal with an opponent who’s fighting back, so perhaps his Mania match against a Lesnar who won’t underestimate him again might actually last a few minutes and be a half-decent match.
If it isn’t, though, does it even matter? It is, after all, about the spectacle, and it’s sure to be that.