WWE ThunderDome, February 2021
WWE’s first stop on the road to this year’s WrestleMania ran through the intimidating structure known as the Elimination Chamber on Sunday night. With the ‘show of shows’ less than two months away, anticipation is slowly beginning to build but is the momentum gathering pace too? Our roving wrestling reporter, Andy Spoors, offers his two cents…
It is often said that the months of January to April are the most exciting for the WWE Universe. Storylines build, rivalries ignite, and an air of expectation breathes through the entire WWE. The faint scent of WrestleMania fills the nostrils of both fans and Superstars alike at the Royal Rumble before reaching fever pitch the week before the big event.
With no concrete information at the time of writing regarding just how many fans will be allowed to attend this year’s WrestleMania, it’s vitally important WWE maximises the demand for the product for both those lucky enough to visit Raymond James Stadium and the rest of the fanbase watching from home.
Sandwiched between the Royal Rumble and Mania are two PPV events in the shape of Elimination Chamber and Fast Lane. Of course, weekly episodic programmes such as Raw and SmackDown give opportunities for storylines to be furthered but those two events are an opportunity for the company to at least hint at what to expect come the big weekend in April.
So, did WWE hit the ground running?
In a word. No.
Another of the company’s gimmick match titled PPVs, the event suffered a series of unfortunate events ahead of Sunday night. The originally advertised US and Raw Women’s Championship matches were both subject to change, (the latter dropped completely) after injury to Keith Lee and the real-life pregnancy of Lacey Evans enforced a reshuffle.
A hastily thrown together, fatal four-way match on the event’s pre-show determined a replacement for Lee in the US Championship match. We’ve often mentioned that when WWE has their backs against the wall, they come out swinging for the fences but the vibes here felt desperate rather than laser focused.
As with other gimmick PPVs, it’s a fine line to tread between becoming a two-match show or not putting enough gravitas around the big matches of the night. In truth, there were only two other matches on the card, one of which was thrown together on Friday’s edition of SmackDown.
The first of the two saw Matt Riddle win the US Championship in a triple threat match against champion Bobby Lashley and winner of the preshow match, John Morrison. The recent push of Lashley has seen the former ECW Champion gain momentum and a reputation for destroying opponents almost as quickly as Brock Lesnar. This version of ‘The Almighty’ is far removed from the cringeworthy storylines he found himself embroiled in with on screen ‘wife’ Lana.
He may have lost his championship, but was kept strong in defeat as Riddle pinned Morrison in a smash and grab effort by the bro. Now that Riddle has claimed his first title, hopefully the former MMA fighter can show just how talented he is in the ring.
The other non-chamber match of the night pitted Women’s Tag Team champions Nia Jax & Shayna Baszler against Sasha Banks and this year’s Royal Rumble winner Bianca Belair. A curious and hellishly frustrating trend in the past 12 months has seen multiple women’s champions attempt to become double title holders by teaming up with a random partner to win the tag belts.
Quite frankly, the less said about this match the better. From the lack of chemistry between Banks and Belair to the awful conclusion to the match, nothing seemed to gel. The random inclusion of Carmella’s sommelier into the match wasn’t needed and sullied what should have sparked a rivalry between Banks and her potential WrestleMania opponent Belair.
The opening match of the night and first of two Elimination Chamber matches went to the red-hot SmackDown brand. Each entrant just about made sense but more importantly loaded the Chamber with talent in every corner.
Kevin Owens is arguably the most popular he has been in his entire career right now and the supreme technical wrestling skills of Cesaro and Daniel Bryan dovetailed perfectly with the heel character work of Sami Zayn, Baron Corbin and Jey Uso.
Unlike the winner of the Raw match, the winner would win an on-the-spot Universal Championship match rather than the title itself. An exhausted Bryan beat the odds, both starting and finishing the match only to lose his Championship ‘match’ against Roman Reigns within seconds.
Adding another level of hatred to Reigns’ already pantomime like villain character set up the arrival of men’s Royal Rumble winner Edge with a spear out of nowhere. It perfectly rounded off the blue brand’s headline match and managed to throw things forward for the coming weeks too.
Uso and Kevin Owens sparked their ongoing rivalry to a whole new level. The disappointment of both Bryan and Cesaro at coming so close to becoming champion and the official announcement of Edge vs Reigns at WrestleMania, emphasised just how far ahead of Raw they really are.
Instead of looking to the future, the red brand decided to fill their chamber match with past WWE Champions to challenge Drew McIntyre. All potential future Hall of Famers, AJ Styles, Sheamus, Jeff Hardy, Kofi Kingston and Randy Orton undeniably loaded the match with talent from top to bottom.
But poor creative decisions hampered the flow of the match. Choosing to focus on one storyline between the recent friends-turned-enemies Sheamus and McIntyre meant everything else felt irrelevant. There was no highly anticipated return or even hint of The Fiend to build up a conflict with Orton. Both Hardy and Kingston felt woefully underutilised and almost acted as spare parts with no real pay-off to the result of the match.
McIntyre has carried the Raw brand since last year’s Mania, so it felt fitting that he make it to this year’s event where fans will actually be in attendance. Here, the big Scotsman took another step towards that destiny, claiming victory and retaining his Championship.
He wouldn’t, however, end the night as Champion. After already feeling the effects of five other competitors, McIntyre was brutally beaten down further by Lashley leaving him wide open for Money in the Bank briefcase holder, The Miz, to cash in his guaranteed title opportunity.
It was slightly left field and certainly puts the cat amongst the pigeons. It has been 10 years since The Miz last held the WWE Championship and, despite proving himself to be not only reliable for the company but excellent on the mic, still has his detractors.
This turn of events has no bearing on the rest of the night’s action. It is, in fact, great to see to see someone who has been loyal to the company and always proved entertaining get his chance at the top of the company.
The true issues lie with the pacing and presentation of a usually slick production. The introduction of new camera angles exposed cameramen. On the face of things this would be nit-picking, but the WWE has made it a cardinal sin to present this on air for decades.
Elsewhere, there was no sign of Raw Women’s Champion, Asuka and no Tag Team champions from either brand. With WrestleMania stretching over two nights, no Undertaker and seemingly no John Cena or Brock Lesnar, options are starting to look thin for the company to entice viewers to tune in.
An already disillusioned fanbase needs some storylines to sink their teeth in to and fast. With just a handful of weeks left to set up roughly 16 matches over the two nights, WWE needs to pull their finger out and stop relying solely on the in-ring talent the Superstars obviously possess.
Build for now but build with one eye on the future. The company may be experiencing the effects of relying on Megastars of the past instead of looking to build Superstars for tomorrow. Course correction has to start now as we hit suddenly shift into the FastLane…