Ronda Rousey makes WWE debut at Royal Rumble in Philadelphia/

I’ll make a confession. I stopped watching wrestling in the midst of the Ruthless Aggression Era, when I started to age out of believing in kayfabe, superheroes, and any of the Devil’s favorite demons.

I had a few friends and family members who would talk about this “New Era” of sorts; how the wrestlers were much better workers, how nostalgic favorites still came into play, and how a PG rating really didn’t matter.

I was skeptical, but I started watching again as the Shield was just breaking up, and I’ve been hooked again ever since. The nearly 15-year gap is important, because since becoming a fan again, I just attended my first WWE events.

Paying for WWE Network and watching multiple YouTube channels caught me up on what I had missed, but none of it really prepared me for what I got to take in during the Philadelphia-based NXT TakeOver, Royal Rumble, Monday Night RAW, and SmackDown Live.

NXT TakeOver Philadelphia

Some people consider NXT to be the “minor leagues” or “developmental”, but in recent years it has played host to some of the best talent in the world. As the first live wrestling show of any sort that I have ever seen, to imply this is anything but major league is simply ridiculous. Whether it was the storytelling of Ember Moon gutting out her first defense against the dominant Shayna Baszler, the extreme rules epic between Aleister Black and Adam Cole, or the technical masterclass between Andrade Cien Almas and Johnny Gargano, this show had something for everyone. And with the Eagles being in Super Bowl LII, the atmosphere was about as electric as it could get. With loud “E-A-G-L-E-S” and “**** Tom Brady chants” mixed in before the action started, the crowd was ready to go. Loud “Adam Cole Baybay”, “Johnny Wrestling”, or “Velveteen” rang out throughout the night, and the hot crowd only amplified the action.

I was eased into the action with the current week’s NXT tapings, seeing Lacey Evans and Nikki Cross, the return of TM61, and a clinical match between the amazing workers Tyler Bate and Roderick Strong. As strange as it was for me to not hear commentary in the arena growing up with JR and Jerry Lawler, the atmosphere only added to the action. The Authors of Pain and Undisputed Era had a great tag match to start things off, only to be followed by Velveteen Dream almost knocking out the “Knockout Artist” Kassius Ohno as the crowd hit 25. He still had to wrestle a full match, but getting a payoff to his “30-second knockout” guarantee was an especially fun moment for the crowd. Seeing Shayna Baszler lose shocked me with how gutsy (and lucky) Ember had to be, but seeing her viciously assault Ember after the match got the whole building roaring for the Extreme Rules match.

With a seat aligned with the announcer’s tables, you can probably guess how crazy the angle was watching a double stomp break through, aside from the cringe-inducing ladder and chair spots throughout the match. “This is awesome” didn’t do the match justice for me as someone who loved the hardcore division when I was a kid. Then Almas and Gargano showed the world why they’re two of the very best at what they do. Dramatic near-falls, Candice chasing Zelina away, and the return of the Psycho Killer Tommaso Ciampa after Johnny had his moment ripped away capped off a perfect first night of wrestling. This masterpiece of wrestling is what truly showed me why Johnny Gargano is so beloved, and may have single-handedly morphed him into my version of Daniel Bryan.

Royal Rumble

After leaving TakeOver the night before, I didn’t see how anything would top the amazing matches I got to witness. We were near the very top of the Wells Fargo Center for the Royal Rumble, and when the Rumble matches hit I was instantly reminded why it is one of the greatest spectacles in sports entertainment. Sure the rest of the card left me craving a little more, but the two Rumble matches were near-perfection for me. Those loud chants from the night before still persisted, but we had the added experience of remembering that it was set to be an incredible Rusev Day, as my drunken section refused to to stop chanting it every chance we had. The men’s Rumble had a bit of everything. Whether it was Rhyno coming in the number 3 spot to loud “E-C-DUB” chants in the city of hardcore wrestling, the perfectly-done triumph of Heath Slater finally entering the match and eliminating Sheamus, or the eruptions for Hurricane Helms and Rey Mysterio, this match hit all the right notes. And best of all, rather than WWE doing something obvious when we’ve heard the Roman vs. Brock rumors for a year, Shinsuke Nakamura got his moment and a Wrestle Kingdom rematch was born.

Ronda Rousey makes her debut and points to the WrestleMania sign/

As good as the men’s match was, it couldn’t hold a candle to the women. I remember when women’s matches were 2-minute bathroom breaks no matter how talented the performers were. It was incredible to watch Sasha and Becky go the lengths they did in carrying the workload. Seeing old favorites like Lita, Trish Stratus, and Molly Holly still have it (and get the chants to prove it) was amazing. Seeing someone I missed like Beth Phoenix stand toe-to-toe with Nia Jax was chill-inducing. Whether it was getting a brief replay of Asuka and Ember, Michelle McCool scoring 5 eliminations, that mini Divas of Doom reunion, or the hysterical return of Vickie Guerrero, everything just hit the right notes. My section wasn’t familiar with Kairi Sane, though I absolutely loved her in the Mae Young Classic. They were screaming for more when they saw her Insane Elbow land and were stunned to see her leave. Asuka standing tall was a picture perfect moment, and the post-match, open-ended debut of “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey (in Piper’s jacket even) just left me wanting more. While Rey’s return was incredible, it was Ronda making the secretive plane trip back that served as a reminder that wrestling is truly a place where anything can happen.

Monday Night RAW

For my first ever RAW, I went big and was close on the floor. I even found myself flooded with texts from my friends who found me on the broadcast, and the build to Elimination Chamber kickstarted after the Main Event tapings. The chants were lighter on the NXT variety despite Almas and Cole somehow making surprise appearances after such brutal matches the night before. This card was pay-per-view quality, and though I’ve seen people complain that the crowd wasn’t hot enough since going, it certainly didn’t feel that way through the feedback of my hearing aids.

Braun slaughtering Kane, Elias stealing a win from Matt Hardy, Miz retaining his prestigious title against Roman Reigns, and Titus Worldwide putting up a good fight against The Bar were entertaining, but this show was about two other matches. Asuka and Sasha Banks were breathtaking to watch, even with the scary dive. Seeing the Empress of Tomorrow get pushed to her limits and persevere just never seems to get old. But despite the fun I personally had in that match, the real treat was the main event.

Finn Bálor and John Cena fought for a spot in the Elimination Chamber, and despite what seemed like a perfect match to end due to shenanigans, John Cena pinned Finn in the center of the ring after a mid-rope AA. As you may have guessed from previous sing-a-long “John Cena Sucks” chants, and the loud boos he and Roman received the night before, people weren’t happy. “Too Sweet” chants were the only thing interrupting the boo’s, that only seemed to get louder when Cena appeared to give security the heads up with some subtlety about a lone beach ball that was off-camera.

I never experienced “Super Cena”, so I never grew to hate him as many do despite his popularity. To me he is the man who sets records for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the guy who somehow tied Ric Flair in championship reigns despite starting out with “Basic Thuganomics”. The Superhero from Massachusetts finally stopped being booed when RAW went off the air, but not until he started singing “Fly, Eagles Fly”. I personally enjoyed getting to send that to some friends further in the northeast. Monday Night RAW truly felt like “The A Show” that it always claims to be.

SmackDown Live

I was still on the floor for my last day of events, but the crowd energy wasn’t the same. I had my “Happy Rusev Day” shirt, and “Happy Rusev Day” sign, but the city couldn’t keep up with the excitement of the previous nights. Most of my section and several others had printout “Happy Rusev Day signs”, and he even managed to win a US Championship opportunity.

But off-camera, this event was far from a sellout crowd, and the effect was noticeable. It wasn’t all on the fans though, as it certainly didn’t help that far too many segments happened to have ill-timed tron pieces, at least from our perspective. This combination led to a bit of a deflating energy, but I got to see some favorites get wins, and some quality performers do what they do best.

Aside from a great Rusev Day, I got to see Charlotte barely escape Carmella lurking with her MITB briefcase. My friends can vouch for how much her title loss will devastate me, and I was quietly cheering when Carmella accidentally knocked out the referee to cost herself. Seeing talents of the magnitude of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Sami Zayn, and Kevin Owens was a treat, even if the crowd didn’t click at times.

The Mixed Match Challenge, and 205 Live were actually the highlights for me, despite the solid episode. Despite the Mixed Match Challenge’s dropping ratings, Becky Lynch and Sami Zayn against Alexa Bliss and Braun Strowman may have been the best match yet. Whether it was Sami pleading the crowd to stop chanting “We Want Strowman”, or Alexa using Braun as a turnbuckle for the finish, it was every bit as fun as it had the potential to be, even if Becky lost on her birthday.

On 205 Live, Daniel Bryan came out to introduce Drake Maverick as the new general manager. The “Spud” chants for the former Rockstar Spud finally seemed to re-energize the crowd after a good Mixed Match Challenge match. Maverick announced a tournament for the vacated Cruiserweight Title and an actual direction for the division.

Cedric Alexander and Gran Metalik drew loud “This Is Awesome” chants, even as the arena was starting to lose a lot of the crowd. TJP and Tyler Bate only continued a great episode, getting some “This Is Awesome” chants of their own, and dueling chants throughout the match. The “holy ****” chants to Bate’s airplane spins only serve to show that the cruiserweights will still wow everyone when they’re allowed to be as creative as they can be.

As far as these four shows went, Tuesday was the weak link, but when your “worst” show still makes you feel like a kid again, how could anyone complain? The electric atmosphere of these four days was similar to being in a small venue for large heavy metal concert. The performers put their bodies on the line with dangerous spots, they showed incredible in-ring psychology, and they were just fun to watch. Former stars returned, moments were created, and as a fan I got to remember that in the world of wrestling, anything is truly possible.


Follow Pierce Hacking on Twitter @PierceAH66



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