Long-Term Booking Ronda Rousey's First Year in WWE

Photo courtesy WWE.com
I tend to shy away from armchair quarterbacking professional wrestling, at least publicly, not only out of regard for the endless variables but also because many such variables are simply unknowable for those outside the company. This entire post could conceivably be blown up in a multitude of ways as soon as tonight’s edition of Raw. That said, I took the time to imagine myself in a world of WWE logic to determine how I would realistically book a year+ build to what could be one of the most anticipated matches of the modern era.

Raw, February 5
After a video package highlighting her appearance at the Royal Rumble and an interview blurb about her WWE status, Ronda Rousey is announced to be next appearing at Elimination Chamber to declare her intentions for WrestleMania.

WWE Live: Road to WrestleMania, February 10
At this Saturday SmackDown-branded house show in Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, Charlotte Flair successfully defends her SmackDown Women’s Championship against Ruby Riott via submission. As she celebrates she is blindsided by Sarah Logan and Liv Morgan, who had been tossed out from ringside earlier. Riott watches as Morgan drops Flair with the New Jersey Buster, and Logan plasters the champ to the mat with a Kentucky Knee.
Carmella’s music hits. Social media explodes as the self-proclaimed Princess of Staten Island successfully cashes in, forcing the listless Flair to pass out in the Cone of Silence.

Elimination Chamber, February 25
After entering sixth, Nia Jax last eliminates Bayley via pinfall to become Raw Women’s Champion in a match that also sees Bayley pinning Banks, as well as defending champion Alexa Bliss attempting to hide in her pod before being pulled in to the fray by Banks, Bayley, and Dana Brooke.
Asuka watches from a chair at the ringside announce desk where Stephanie McMahon is providing guest commentary, but when she rises during Jax’ celebration, Ronda Rousey’s music hits. Rousey repeats her offer of a handshake to an intensely smiling Asuka, at which point McMahon takes a house mic to declare, “You will not spoil another moment of this women’s evolution! This isn’t about you!” Rousey smirks at McMahon, points at herself, then points at the WrestleMania sign. McMahon appears shaken as Rousey departs.

Raw, February 26
Stephanie McMahon suggests Kurt Angle rescind Rousey’s contract, as Rousey “just doesn’t know how things are done around here.” Angle refuses, in what he probably finds to be a pleasurable enough exchange despite McMahon’s scowl. He reminds McMahon that it sounds like she has a WrestleMania match to get ready for.

Raw, March 5
Stephanie McMahon announces that her WrestleMania match with Rousey will be a mixed tag, and she introduces her “husband, the King of Kings, the Cerebral Assassin, the Game,” Triple H as her partner. Triple H says he hopes Rousey thinks long and hard before picking a partner, because come April 8th he and Stephanie will be more ready than ever to prove their dominance in “sports entertainment.”
Rousey is announced to be making her first appearance on Raw the following week to select her partner.

Fastlane, March 11
Charlotte Flair becomes a two-time SmackDown Women’s Champion via submission in her contractual rematch against a showboating Carmella.

Raw, March 12
Ronda Rousey selects Kurt Angle as her partner. Angle says he was apprehensive at first because he knows Stephanie McMahon will be fuming at the news, but he is gleeful at the opportunity to compete at WrestleMania one more time.

SmackDown, March 13
During a Charlotte Flair promo in which the champion prefaces a WrestleMania title defense by declaring she’s “ready for anyone,” Asuka’s mask appears on the tron. On screen, Asuka removes the mask and states, “Queen. Empress. WrestleMania. No one is ready for Asuka!” Flair conceals a smirk as she looks on with a solemn nod.

WrestleMania 34, April 8
Nia Jax pins a freshly babyface Alexa Bliss to retain her championship in a one-fall-to-a-finish invitational on the kickoff show.

Stephanie McMahon wears MMA-inspired gear to the ring. Kurt Angle and Triple H start the match, but before they lock up Rousey asks to be tagged in. She and McMahon climb on to the canvas, and McMahon comically tags right back out. The men’s posturing and McMahon’s cowardly avoidance tell the story of the match before Triple H suffers an Angle Slam and Rousey finally, quickly, forces McMahon to frantically submit via armbar - the familiar technique Rousey will use to put away the majority of her forthcoming opponents.
Triple H comes at Angle with a sledgehammer after the bell, but Rousey fluidly ties Hunter up in an armbar as well. With the McMahon-Helmsleys' tails between their legs, Angle and Rousey celebrate together.

Asuka defeats Charlotte Flair via submission to become the SmackDown Women’s Champion, officially swapping brands.

Raw, April 9
Stephanie McMahon is announced to have reportedly suffered ligament injuries in her arm, and will need months to recover.

Ronda Rousey has her first match on Raw, in which she taps out Alexa Bliss in under a minute. The armbar pops Bliss’ elbow out of place.

With a handful of tights, Sasha Banks defeats Bayley via pinfall in a grudge match after the two of them screwed one another out of victories during prior night's invitational.

SmackDown, April 10
In a contractual rematch, Asuka defeats Charlotte Flair via submission in to retain her new championship - Asuka’s first victory in what will be at least a full year of continuing her undefeated streak in a variety of deck-stacking title defenses. Along the way Asuka will become cockier and cockier.

Raw, April 16
Ronda Rousey taps out Absolution’s Mandy Rose in under 30 seconds.

A Superstar Shake-Up brings Becky Lynch to Raw, and sends Bayley to SmackDown along with NXT call-up Nikki Cross. Both SmackDown newcomers will be perennial contenders for Asuka's title.

Raw, April 23
Rousey taps out Absolution’s Sonya Deville in under a minute despite Deville's MMA background.
Rousey issues a challenge to anyone in the locker room. Sasha Banks responds, and says she wants the match at Backlash.

Backlash, May 6
Rousey taps out Banks in under a minute.

Nia Jax retains her championship against the bandaged Alexa Bliss.

Raw, May 7
Citing her enviable record, Rousey stakes a claim to Jax' championship. Kurt Angle (or the current Raw general manager) confirms the match for Money in the Bank.
Henceforth, Rousey appears on WWE programming bi-weekly at most.

Money in the Bank, June 17
Rousey defeats Jax via submission in approximately five minutes - her toughest challenge yet - to become the Raw Women’s Champion.

Becky Lynch wins the Money in the Bank contract.

Raw, July 15
Lynch announces she is cashing in her contract for a proper title shot at SummerSlam.

SummerSlam, August 19
In a shock upset, Lynch defeats Ronda Rousey with the Disarm-Her in under a minute to become Raw Women’s Champion.
Later that night, cameras catch Rousey attempting to discreetly leave the Barclays Center. Rousey shuns questioning, and leaves in a vehicle with tinted glass.

Raw, August 20
It is announced that Rousey has not been heard from since SummerSlam. No one in WWE even knows where she is.

Raw, October 22
In a main event tag match featuring the team of Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, Shayna Baszler makes her main roster debut by interfering and beating down Lynch. When Banks tries to make the save, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir appear and together the three attackers leave their prey lying.
Ronda Rousey’s music plays, and in her first appearance on WWE TV since SummerSlam Rousey poses with her fellow Horsewomen of MMA to close the show.

Raw, October 29
In red Raw shirts, Banks and Lynch take the ring to call out the Four Horsewomen of MMA, insisting that they're on “Monday Night Raw,” not “UFC.” All four Horsewomen enter and face off with their adversaries. From the crowd, Bayley and Charlotte Flair enter wearing blue SmackDown shirts. In the ring, the three groups stand off in a triangle, until Bayley and Flair step over to side with Banks and Lynch.
When the quartets move in to go face-to-face, Rousey’s group backs off and exits.
Shortly thereafter, a traditional Survivor Series elimination match between the groups is confirmed.

Survivor Series, November 18
Baszler and Rousey survive in the Horsewomen vs. Horsewomen match, with Baszler last eliminating Bayley via submission with a merciless Kirifuda Clutch.

Royal Rumble, January 27
Rousey wins the Royal Rumble, eliminating Baszler along her way to also clearing the early record for most eliminations in a women’s Rumble with six. In a post-match interview, she says though she's been through rough times, she’s now been Raw Women’s Champion, she’s stood victorious with her Horsewomen, now she's won the Rumble... and the final act on her path to redemption will be ending Asuka’s undefeated streak and becoming SmackDown Women’s Champion at WrestleMania.

SmackDown, January 29
Asuka dismissively responds to Rousey’s challenge. This begins a cross-brand feud in which the two wrestlers are often reached for comment about the other but rarely if ever seen together, until...

Raw, April 1
Asuka appears on Raw for what is billed as a "face to face" with Rousey. In the ring, Renée Young asks questions of the competitors. The segment culminates in an intense staredown, after which Asuka begins laughing to herself as she leaves with her title.

WrestleMania 35, April 7
In what is called "The woman who began the revolution vs. the woman who rules the revolution," Asuka defeats Ronda Rousey via pinfall in an extremely close bout. Having earned a mutual respect, the two embrace, and Asuka holds up Rousey's arm to the crowd. Rousey then holds up Asuka's arm, and gives Asuka the ring.

In the fallout of WrestleMania 35, we ask ourselves... who can defeat Asuka? Will Ember Moon or Kairi Sane appear to challenge the Empress? How long will Ronda Rousey's tenure in WWE be, assuming it's not already over? What becomes of Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir? Will Shayna Baszler eat everyone for breakfast, or only the people who don't like Star Wars? Where does this leave the rest of the division? Will Carmella recover? Will Bayley rebound and become what we know she can be after a year of being fantasy-booked to tap out to everyone?

Of course, there are any number of ways this could all go down. The proposed WrestleMania 35 match seems inevitable, and perhaps we'll see it sooner than 2019. Perhaps something unforeseen will occur and whatever plans were in place will need to be reshuffled. Either way, one can imagine the boost to WWE Network subscriptions that will result from carefully thought out plans in this exciting time.


Wrestling Isn't About Endings

In the "old days", advertised house show main events would take place prior to a scheduled intermission with the express purpose of promoting the next show in that town. A screwy finish would work up the crowd, then during the break a return match would be announced: "...and tickets are available now!" Pro wrestling has dramatic peaks and valleys, but this entertainment business with no off-season is never about endings; it's about selling the next show.

The 2017 edition of WWE's Money in the Bank event opened with the first ever women's Money in the Bank ladder match - that card placement being the first clue the match itself wouldn't be the last we'd hear from this narrative thread before the program's end. The match was impressive as expected, featuring Becky Lynch taking a back bump on a ladder, Charlotte Flair corkscrewing from the top rope to the outside, and more. Regardless of any kind of finish, the match happened and it did not disappoint. Then, with everyone laid out, awkward escort James Ellsworth ascended a ladder and grabbed the match-winning briefcase for Carmella.

Twitter exploded. And that explosion included tweets from SmackDown Live authority figures Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan - indications presented carefully throughout the rest of the event that the follow-up to this controversy will be the main reason to tune in to their show on the USA Network at 8PM EST this Tuesday. Brock Lesnar lost a match in less than two minutes. Jinder Mahal upset Randy Orton for the world title. Now this. WWE has gotten better at utilizing matters we "smartened-up" fans truly care about to create loads of buzz stretching beyond the hardcore fanbase.

Now, Carmella was my personal pick to win the contract for a  "cash-in" title opportunity (though all options seemed conceivable) as she has been perennial of late but not enjoyed much legitimacy - and I certainly did not foresee her winning in particularly dominant fashion - but I did expect a visual of a woman standing atop a ladder triumphantly wielding her trophy. I would have treasured such an image as would have many others, but I also loved the completely unexpected result we got instead. Last time Carmella made a televised entrance, I lamented how the crowd is always completely silent for her (read: apathetic). I don't foresee this being an issue henceforth. In fact, 'Mella emerged again later in the night for an entertaining cash-in tease during Naomi and Lana's title match, and the crowd appeared in near frenzy. I recall bemusement when Ric Flair helped his daughter win her first WrestleMania match in Houston when many of us desperately wanted to see Sasha Banks holding the new women's belt above her head, but I'd say that's all panned out quite nicely as Charlotte is already at home being mentioned alongside some of the greats.

Female wrestlers are now referred to as "superstars", just like all other talent. The title belts now look just as legitimate. Several have main-evented special events, and even more have done the same on weekly TV. The same women's images have been used to prominently advertise WrestleMania (and the subsequent matches were arguably the bests on their respective cards). Asuka toppled Goldberg's undefeated streak, and she's helping cultivate a new crop of talent in NXT including Peyton Royce and Lacey Evans. Alexa Bliss has recently emerged as one of the most popular stars in the company today, and she's far from alone. There have been tables, cages, cells, and kendo sticks. The women's division has seen many overdue milestones in the past several years thanks to incredible in-ring talent and responsive fans, and that will not stop. The inaugural Mae Young Classic is only one month away. A heel winning a heel-oriented gimmick match in a heelish way that got people talking does not change any of that except to potentially put more eyes on it. If WWE didn't care about women's wrestling, the women would not be the main hook selling this week's SmackDown Live.


The Best Films of 2016

After two years of circumstantially slicing more than half my typical film viewing like a seeping appendage, I'm back. Try to contain your enthusiasm. After considering over 100 films I subjectively place as "2016", I feel confident recommending these ten standouts for your contemporary viewing pleasure.

Perhaps the year's cinematic landscape was merciful, or perhaps my scrutiny's simply improved, as 2016 featured fewer outright stinkers than I've become accustomed to. Among the sea of "really good" there is an unusually large helping of somewhat undercooked offerings, as many films start well and falter along the way (The Girl on the Train, The Legend of Tarzan, Chevalier...) while others meander before cementing moderate memorability (L'avenir, Sunset SongAquarius...). Still others nearly give me qualitative whiplash as they bounce from excellence to dreck and back again (okay, I'm pretty much just referring to Nocturnal Animals). Plenty thoroughly strong titles are to be found, however, and are well worth your time.

For the full, updating rankings from best to worst, visit my "2016" list on Letterboxd.

Honorable mentions (#25-11)
Hail, Caesar! (Coens), The Fits (Holmer), Sully (Eastwood), Allied (Zemeckis), Hell or High Water (Mackenzie), Moonlight (Jenkins), Fences (Washington), The Nice Guys (Black), Queen of the Desert (Herzog), Wiener-Dog (Solondz), The Witch (Eggers), O.J.: Made in America (Edelman), 君の名は。 [your name.] (Shinkai), The Light Between Oceans (Cianfrance), Paterson (Jarmusch)

Top Ten (#10-1)

Childhood of a Leader, Corbet
One of my favorite intangibles in a great film is assurance. Experimentation is well and good (except when it's not), but if a filmmaker can provide a sense of confidence in their art from beginning to end I am all the more impressed. Such assurance is especially impressive in the case of a feature debut, which is precisely what we have with Brady Corbet's profile of a period in the youth of a future fascist leader. A daunting score charges through the carefully composed series of "tantrums", graced by a glass-cutting turn from Bérénice Bejo - ingredients enough that the compelling subject matter feels like icing.

Kubo & the Two Strings, Knight
Family fare that dares to challenge its younger audience members can be difficult to find anymore. Enter "Kubo" - an immediately heart-wrenching, often horrifying, and ultimately indelible (while occasionally cute) original tale deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Today's children will be proud to revisit this gorgeous stop-motion animation as adults and realize how excellent it truly is. Bonus: the innovation of the "Sword Unbreakable" sequence is worthy of standing alongside Ray Harryhausen's marvelous Dynamation creations.

Team Foxcatcher, Greenhalgh
As of this writing, my #1 of 2014 remains Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" - a haunting depiction of a mentor/protégé relationship in the vein of the core "Boogie Nights" narrative, or, more fittingly, that of Soderbergh's underseen Liberace film "Behind the Candelabra". Quite nearly as captivating is this documentary of the true events that led to Dave Schultz' murder at the hands of John du Pont. The amateur wrestling backdrop, the utterly fascinating character that was du Pont, and the looming consequence his fortune and misgivings culminated in, all presented primarily through actual home video footage from the Farms... it's an experience that had me pressing 'play' again as soon as the credits began to roll.

Warcraft, Jones
The biggest surprise of my year came when I decided to get drunk and laugh at how embarrassing Duncan Jones' alleged trainwreck based on a video game series I've never cared for turned out. Six Yuenglings and something with gin (the theatre called it a "Godfather") later, I wound up having a blast with what feels like a campy 1980s 'B' fantasy (think "Gor" or "Krull") was given a nine-figure budget boost. It's possibly an even bigger surprise that the fun holds up sober. Unique, albeit convoluted lore benefits an unabashed commitment to depicting in film a tumultuous and somewhat whimsical world where magic spells are as commonplace as Dunkin' in Boston. It's silly, but I'll sit down and rollick in this silliness any time. Give us the sequel China wants, Universal!

Knight of Cups, Malick
My Terrence Malick critique tank may still be empty from declaring "To the Wonder" a dream-like odyssey at TIFF12, which doesn't say much to combat the mentality that Malick has just been making mini versions of "The Tree of Life" since 2011, but... well, he hasn't. There's more to this continued departure from the random curves of nature to the sharp edges of manmade structure. Admittedly it took revisitation before I fully came around on this characteristically masculine journey through the relationships that define a man, which leads me to feel if you've never seen a Malick this might not be where you wish to begin. As a fan, I have come to regard it as one of ol' Terry's better outings. He can stay away from beaches for a while, though.

Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater
Richard Linklater has provided some of the defining films of our lifetime, yet we've been waiting since the middling and oft-forgotten "SubUrbia" for the auteur to truly return to the day-in-the-life ensemble hangouts he broke through with. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried this logical college-in-the-'80s successor to "Dazed & Confused" I've always wished for would fall flat. To my pleasure, "Everybody Wants Some!!" - while not instantly as iconic as "Dazed" - delivers signature Linklater goodness in droves. Complete with era-specific soundtrack and wardrobe, this snapshot of young men seeking definition between grade school and their careers gave me exactly what I wanted.

クリーピー 偽りの隣人 [Creepy], Kurosawa
During my viewing of this expert thriller that absolutely lives up to its name, you could have poured hot coffee in my lap and I would have stayed desperately still for need to remain trained on the screen to the end. On top of purely entertaining me more than many films do - while providing visuals that are nothing to scoff at - my first from Kiyoshi Kurosawa proved I would do well to quit inadvertently passing by the director's taut work.

Silence, Scorsese
Please forgive in advance my preferred description of one of Martin Scorsese's greatest achievements. Generally, one of the most impressive aspects of Scorsese's work is curiosity. The indisputably legendary director adores his craft so much, he is not satisfied to simply persist in creating new versions of what has worked for him in the past. Far more often than not this curiosity leads to results that would make anyone uninitiated believe he has spent a lifetime developing what are actually new ventures - the stunning and felicitous use of 3D in "Hugo" being the prime recent example. Not to discount ingenuity also found in "Silence", but the passion project completely blows me away for an entirely different reason. Rather than find one or two particular curiosities to hone in on, what Marty has done here is reach deep in to his black cashmere slacks of rarely rivaled filmmaking expertise, extract a gargantuan phallus from within and wallop it upon a marble display as if to exclaim, "Behold! Behold and cower before my unbridled cinematic virility!" He probably flexed, too. It's a very good movie.

山河故人 [Mountains May Depart], Jia
A familiar song. A soft, unbroken look. A single act three scene so out of place it nearly topples the entire piece, but we're not going to let that spoil our day. Jia Zhangke is a renowned filmmaker I've lazily allowed to linger in my periphery, and his deliciously titled "Mountains May Depart" changes that. Or at least it will, once I tire of rewatching it so I may explore his other works. It's certainly saying something when a film contains the line, "It's like Google Translate is your real son" yet still manages to hold me in a state of perpetually damp-eyed adoration. I'll never be able to listen to the Pet Shop Boys without weeping ever again.

Certain Women, Reichardt
You could probably travel through Montana's Paradise Valley filming two hours of passing bushes, and I'd love it simply for the setting. Kelly Reichardt has utilized those 50 sumptuous miles between Gardiner and Livingston to give us three vignettes that capture in their deceptive simplicity the swelling aspirations and bittersweet eventualities of our lives. And for all the everyday beauty we are party to, the whole can be summed up in its tiniest moments. An awkward silence. The sip of a milkshake. A pile of rocks. Seriously, I've never felt so much emotion looking at a pile of rocks. Reichardt has been a filmmaker to prioritize for over a decade now. "Certain Women" is by far her best work.
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