8.05.2019

Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Adolf Hitler, a plantation owner, and now Charles Manson. As if Quentin Tarantino's aims with his latest piece of historical fiction weren't precisely clear from the base premise, the building blocks for the inevitable climax are put unsubtly in play in short order. While we wait for the beat-for-beat payoff we have predicted to be en route, Tarantino does what has been his habit for a decade now - linger on forced references to media he loves, as well as Kevin Smith-esque references to his own prior output.

As Tarantino has refined his camera to be more comparable to such contemporaries as Spike Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson than it was in these filmmakers' more comparison-rife 1990s heyday (which is not to say that heyday does not have its time-tested triumphs such as the entirety of the Uma Thurman sequence in "Pulp Fiction"), his subject matters have offset the balance by growing increasingly self-serving. One cannot argue with the fundamental fantasies of a Jewish man shooting Hitler, a black man taking down a plantation, and now an emblem of the Hollywood era Tarantino most reveres preventing the Tate Murders and their subsequent shockwaves, though as the years push on their presentations feel more and more like Quentin playing with extremely expensive action figures in reaction criticisms he resents. Utilizing this story to overtly defend the gratuitous film violence Tarantino is often raked over is a troubling quest, particularly when this film's celebration of violence is deliberately gratuitous as opposed to that of, say, "Kill Bill", where the stylizations bear greater purpose on top of that narrative's deeper emotional core. The catharsis of Hitler's face exploding apart under Eli Roth's rain of bullets is not quite matched in this film by what winds up feeling like Tarantino's attempt at Judd Apatow-influenced physical comedy - something that didn't even work for the great Martin Scorsese in the last film Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie co-starred in (ed.: the last film I actually reviewed in full instead of in blurb form... yikes).

At least here, unlike with "Django Unchained" and "The Hateful Eight", the proceedings are mostly enjoyable at face value, thanks in large part to Brad Pitt being Brad Pitt as well as the infectious, interconnecting 1969 soundtrack. And - not to miss the forest for its trees - at least this Manson is indeed portrayed as a clear villain as his aforementioned predecessors were in what has become of the Tarantino canon. Charlie's spectre looms over the piece in an effectively tense as opposed to exploitative or even sympathetic manner, contrasting many other tellings of the events he incited. This character is not even given any significant screen time through which he could wind up exalted on wall posters and fan tattoos like so many other movie antagonists. Finally, at least, and maybe most importantly, Michael Madsen is still the reigning master of the dramatic pause.

5.10.2019

4 Reasons to be Optimistic about WWE's Firefly Funhouse

After a lengthy layaway, WWE's Bray Wyatt is back on weekly programming in pre-taped and post-produced segments that, on the surface, purport a drastic shift away from the swampy cult leader of Wyatt's recent past. There is plenty yet to be seen from the Pee-wee Herman inspired repackaging, and fans and analysts are split. Here are four reasons why we can be optimistic in the face of WWE's track record. I might have come up with a more traditional number by dwelling on other, smaller reasons I thought up along the way, but I didn't want to fource it (yowie-wowie, that was awful).

Update, 5/13: The fifth reason is that Tom freaking Savini's team designed the mask Wyatt revealed in the Funhouse's fourth outing (arguably an early reveal for such an intriguingly layered concept, but anything but reason to jump ship).

He’s still the same character
One of two fatal flaws in Wyatt’s prior incarnation was that it was steeped in mysterious layers, but maddeningly no single layer ever wound up getting peeled back so to tell its potentially compelling tale. Now with fresh layers we have a new chance to make good on such a rich concept. When the Funhouse debuted an initial point of concern was that Wyatt's name has remained (admittedly a more difficult amendment on the scale of the main roster now that it's not, you know, the 1980s anymore), and furthermore that his former likeness even showed up in cardboard form for ceremonial dismissal, but this new Wyatt in fact being the same person who has gone through a change may in fact be the most compelling aspect of the new framing. The Funhouse's merry children's show stylings seem to represent Wyatt trying to escape the one thing he can’t - himself. Implied is the idea that this new persona was the character's own chosen method for leaving his old ways behind, and from the beginning each segment thus far has centered around those old ways finding ways to surface and subvert Wyatt's apparent intentions.

It can absolutely translate to the ring
The other fatal flaw in Wyatt's prior incarnation was that his storylines rarely made sense being settled by a pinfall in a wrestling ring, and at first glance one indeed wonders if the new Wyatt faces that same issue. The Funhouse is Wyatt's safe space, even if the parts of his consciousness represented by the puppets are disturbed enough to still be hostile within that space. Say another wrestler is invited on the show the way someone like Jack Black shows up on "Yo Gabba Gabba!" and simply by being themselves their behavior disrupts that space. They don’t do things just the way Bray has cultivated for himself so not to get triggered. Funhouse or no, Wyatt and his contemporaries are still wrestlers, and it would make sense for Bray to take issue with those who pop his bubble and want to regain his peace by defeating through his trained methods. In a particularly in-depth feud, imagine he gets darker and darker over the course of the story. The theme song can become distorted. The bright set can have dark filters cast over it. Then once it’s over, Wyatt can bounce back playing in the Funhouse as he likes even though cracks in his masquerade have been revealed. If he loses the feud, perhaps new cracks form. We’ve seen just how well Wyatt flips from fun to creepy, and back again, and this dynamic could thrive in its new setting. What's more, one can imagine any number of signature pre-taped matches that could arise, a la the "Deletions" of Broken Matt Hardy. Perhaps as more segments are filmed, the Funhouse expands beyond the living room we've seen so far. These expansions could be bright and cheery, or dark and eerie, maybe depending on when they are introduced in a given angle.

The Funhouse could be a backstage interview setting
Like Beefcake's Barbershop or Piper’s Pit, Wyatt's set could be a place for its host to mediate promo segments between other wrestlers. Just imagine the looks on guests’ faces as they react to the scenery, Bray’s demeanor, the puppets, and how Bray might try to smooth over a feud perhaps similarly to Gollum talking to his own reflection. Granted this could be more of a fallback option depending on how well the new characterization gels going forward, but it puts out there how the Funhouse could be used even if its original intent reaches rocky shores.

Potential for a faction
Over time, once the new Wyatt has established every currently planned aspect of his refreshed character (which feels as though it has been permitted some creative autonomy with a whole lot of thought behind it, with speculation reasonably placing Matt Hardy and Bruce Prichard as influencers), new members of the Funhouse can be added. A Mr. McFeely-esque mail carrier, for example, who brings messages pertaining to angles or even championships. The incongruously grizzled Eric Young? Wyatt's goofier real life brother Bo Dallas, who excelled in his role as a motivational speaker who didn't practice what he preached? Alicia Fox, whose particular brand of kooky could be a perfect fit? Perhaps this mail carrier could interfere in matches on Wyatt's behalf, or even appear in various places to deliver messages (of written and physically violent kinds) from Wyatt to other wrestlers. Over more time, maybe even a regular co-host who Bray has taken in, or at least accepted into his bubble. The Baby Bop to Bray’s Barney the Dinosaur. The extremely talented yet bafflingly wayward Nikki Cross? The eternally bubbly Jessie Elaban? Or Lacey Lane, whose look could evoke Wyatt's past (not to mention his matching dyed dreads)? This sidekick could be a regular competitor in the women’s division, and introduce a whole new set of wrinkles to the Funhouse.

Though they have had monumental creative successes such as the Mega Powers' explosion and, on the NXT front, the Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa saga, WWE's history with complex storytelling is somewhere between not great and abysmal. As was the case with the old Bray Wyatt, maybe the new one is merely a merch-selling framework that will never lead anywhere substantial apart from $24.99 Mercy the Buzzard replicas. Maybe it's all a ploy awaiting expeditious reveal and Wyatt will be back to cryptic soothsaying in a lamplit butcher's apron before long. But maybe, just maybe, some of this extremely promising concept will pay off. In its earliest phases it already seems to have the makings of something different that could be remembered for years to come.

5.05.2019

Report: Nerd Street Presents Pro Wrestling Orlando

Estimated attendance: 75

Englewood Neighborhood Center is the venue where NXT ran their Orlando live events before relocating them to the Orlando Live Events Jai Alai 10 miles north in Casselberry. The Nerd Street promotion's inaugural event was promoted as “The first wrestling event of its kind.”

Before belltime official Frank Gastineau and others could be seen setting up the ring. Leon Scott ran the ropes to test them. Other wrestlers including Leva Bates, Drennen, Effy, White Mike, Aerial Monroe, Odinson, Parrow, Timmy Lou Retton, and Aspyn Rose could be seen mingling and taking promotional photos. NXT official D.A. Brewer could be spotted in attendance. T-shirts depicting an illustration of Jim Cornette yelling at the Young Bucks, as well as shirts printed with the event card poster were being sold for $20 or as inclusions with $40 front row VIP passes. Generation admission was $12. At the door were advertisements for the return event, “Nerd Street Returns” on August 18, featuring images of Saieve al Sabah, Leva Bates, and Effy.

Sweet Charles welcomed the crowd and introduced himself as event host.

(1) Wolfe Taylor pinned Chance Rizer. Billed as “Deadbeat vs. Newcomer.” Rizer entered with his phone, whining that he has important tweets to send out and can’t be bothered to acknowledge the event personnel. Rizer responded to fan heckling during the bout, particularly in regard to his “Big Lebowski”-esque sweater. He dominated Wolfe, taking full advantage of official Frank Gastineau’s counts and declaring that he’s entitled to a count of “4.9.” Wolfe countered a suplex and drilled Rizer with a DDT, then found two on a lungblower. Rizer answered with two off a Blue Thunder Bomb. Wolfe then achieved victory with a rolling DDT.

(2) CJ O’Doyle pinned Francisco Ciatso (with Ron Niemi). Billed as an “Old School Hoss Fight.” The Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep till Brooklyn” played Ciatso in. Niemi demanded fans not cheer for O’Doyle, saying, “Don’t start that garbage!” Ciatso mocked the crowd, and O’Doyle said Ciatso must think it’s still the ‘80s. Ciatso protected himself in the ropes repeatedly, demanding the official call the match “right down the middle.” Ciatso walked away, loudly citing his prior accolades. O’Doyle wiped his rear with Ciatso’s jacket, drawing Ciatso back to the ring for a collar-and-elbow. The wrestlers slammed in to one another, neither going down. Ciatso flexed and shouted, “Stacked, jacked, locked, and cocked!” Ciatso took a powder and asked his manager for a lower back massage. O’Doyle slammed Ciatso, flicked his sweat on him, and shouted, “You see this hair on my chest? It means I’m a man!” He landed an elbow drop. Ciatso ran the ropes and got winded, opening himself up for an abdominal stretch. O’Doyle asked for the official’s phone, and took a selfie with the his agonized opponent in the hold. O’Doyle hit a dive through the ropes, then got two on a DDT when Niemi put Ciatso’s foot on the rope. As the official reprimanded Niemi, Ciatso tried to take advantage but wound up falling to O’Doyle’s finisher after nearly knocking his manager from the apron.

(3) Leva Bates pinned Aspyn Rose. Bates cosplayed as Captain America, and handed out Taco Bell to fans for Dia de los Muertos. Bates shimmied on Sweet Charles as Rose’s entrance theme played. The wrestlers shook hands at the bell, and Rose beelined straight for Bates’ leftover tacos. Bates commanded Rose to focus, but Rose opened herself for pinning combinations as she couldn’t resist. Rose took a bite of a taco and sucker punched Bates for two. Rose shouted “I want Taco Bell,” and slammed her rear in to Bates’ face. Bates responded in kind, and referenced recent Internet memes about Captain America's (Chris Evans') enviable posterior. Rose continued to voice her craving for Bates’ tacos. She couldn’t take her eyes off the box of food in the corner even when kicking out of a Northern Lights Suplex. Rose propped the box on Bates in the corner and went for a double knee attack that was dodged. Bates hit Rose in the face with a taco for the win as shredded lettuce and ground beef flew everywhere. Bates offered the still eager Rose one final taco after the bell (the ring bell, that is). Official Frank Gastineau swept the strewn ingredients to cheers.

(4) Drennen (c) defeated Dick Danger, Leon Scott, and Jamie Senegal Leon Scott to retain the Internet Championship. Danger entered to Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” dressed as a blend of Peter Fonda’s Captain America from “Easy Rider” and Evel Knievel. Senegal gave the official a kiss on the cheek and complained about the “nasty” taco ingredients lingering on the canvas. He then asked the crowd, “should I eat it?” Drennen rolled out of the ring at the bell and took a seat with the fans. Danger and Senegal tried but could not fell Scott. Drennen tried a sneak attack, and Scott took him out after shouting, “I’m gonna give you 56k reasons why that was a bad idea!” Danger hit a beautiful airplane spin on Senegal. He brought Scott to his knees with punch after punch but was flattened by a slam from the big man. Scott went for a powerslam on Senegal but was countered into a DDT. Drennen slid back in to pick the leavings, snap suplexed Senegal, and hit an elbow drop from the second turnbuckle. He verbally harassed Senegal, who leapt up into a kick to his head. Danger broke up the subsequent pinfall as Drennen wailed in pain. Scott powerlifted Drennen and hit a burning hammer, and again Danger broke up the fall. Scott propped Danger on a turnbuckle and caved in his chest with thick chops, then Danger rallied with a DDT from his elevated position. Danger sent both Scott and Senegal over the top rope, and went for an aerial attack on them but before he could launch Drennen caught him in a schoolboy for the win.

During a ten-minute intermission wrestlers including Leva Bates, Effy, Chance Rizer, Aspyn Rose, and Wolfe Taylor held a meet-and-greet. Bates apologized that she was out of tacos. Effy made sure to pay extra attention to one of his young fans in the audience.

(5) Saieve al Sabah pinned Treehouse Lee. Billed as a “Florida Dream Match.” Both wrestlers entered to the best reactions of the event to that point. Possibly of note, within the past week al Sabah posted to social media that he is no longer accepting bookings. A good competitive energy marked the opening feeling out phase. Lee hit a crazy leaping head scissors then a beautiful cross body for two. Al Sabah crotched Lee in the turnbuckle for two of his own, and clapped at official Frank Gastineau to count the pin faster. He put Lee in a chinlock and commanded the crowd to stop clapping to encourage Lee to fight out. Al Sabah stood on Lee’s neck then flipped on to him for two. Lee rallied and soared over the top rope on to al Sabah, his momentum carrying him into a cool strut over the cleared chairs in the audience. Al Sabah hit a running powerslam and back-to-back springboard moonsaults for a close two. Lee dodged a running attack and spun into a superheroic head scissors for two. Al Sabah snuck a low blow and quickly found three afterward. He shook Lee’s hand after the bell, and the wrestlers celebrated together.

(6) Aerial Monroe pinned Effy. Billed as the main event. Monroe wore black braided hair extensions, a notable aesthetic change from her short, dyed style. She blew a kiss to her daughter who was in the audience waving a miniature Leva Bates flag. "The Feminist Icon" Effy vaped on his way to the ring. Effy mocked “Big Swole” Monroe's signature pose then smirked and said to the official, “I’m trying so hard to be a bad boy and it doesn’t work!” Effy tested Monroe’s strength and Monroe withstood, punctuating the early phases with a superkick that sent Effy through the ropes. Effy slammed Monroe hard on the ring apron. Effy held Monroe in a gutwrench, and she spanked him and said, “Put me down!” Effy slammed her and shrieked, “You’re making it worse by spanking me!” As Monroe attempted to get up, Effy said, “Is it lonely here in Orlando with your man on 205 Live? Or do you have a friend backstage?” Monroe clotheslined Effy nearly out of his boots. She punched away at him until she fell over from exhaustion. Effy kicked Monroe to the mat and demanded, “Is this the hill you die on?” He said the Orlando independent scene belongs to him. Monroe fired up and went to town with strikes and a headbutt. Effy raged with power moves including a big boot in the corner but Monroe would not stay down. Effy took a vape break, and Monroe clocked him with a huge headbutt for the decision. Monroe received a standing ovation as fans chanted her nickname.

(7) The End (Odinson & Mike Parrow) defeated the Gym Nasty Boys (White Mike & Timmy Lou Retton) via pinfall. Recently returned from a tour in Japan, The End sprayed chrome on their teeth a la the War Boys in “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Having to face the massive Odinson and Parrow, the Gym Nasty Boys sulked on their way to the ring to the sounds of the “Family Matters” theme. They tried to hype up the way The End does by slapping each other, but White Mike yelled, “Stop, it hurts!” Odinson asked the official about the taco ingredients at ringside, and the official said, "Long story." Before the bell White Mike ran away screaming. Parrow caught him and rubbed his face against the concession stand glass. Odinson carted Retton along the front row and beat him to a pulp in the fans’ faces. The End continued to put the hurt on the Gym Nasty Boys until rolling them into the ring to finally start the match proper. Retton tried to rally as he evaded Odinson’s offense. White Mike dropkicked Parrow out of the ring after a miscommunication between the big men. He asked for a spritz of The End's chrome, but when Retton obliged he begged off as the spray stung his eyes. Odinson pulled White Mike’s hair in a surfboard stretch. Some fans protested the maneuver so Parrow shot them a look and they shut right up. White Mike kicked out of a powerslam, and loudly gagged as Parrow tagged in and held his face to the turnbuckle with a boot. White Mike pleaded, “That’s all I got” before Parrow slapped him to the mat and stood on his head. White Mike tried to power up, shouted “Kiai,” and was clotheslined flat by Parrow. White Mike continued to kick out over and over after Odinson tagged back in and went to work. Parrow tagged back in and White Mike offered to pay him $20 to call a truce. He then shouted “Sike” and went for an ineffective chop. Retton got the hot tag and briefly took it to both members of The End before Parrow caught him in a chokeslam for a broken up two. The End went for a team move but Retton countered and went for a moonsault. Odinson dodged and bowled both Gym Nasty Boys down. The End hit their team finish for the win, with Parrow pinning White Mike after the climactic assisted backstabber. Parrow left his wrist tape on the felled Mike as Odinson quoted the War Boys' pledge from “Fury Road” on his way out. When Mike came to he asked, “Did we win?” The crowd answered, and he said, “But did we win your hearts?”

Sweet Charles plugged the August 18th return date as the event came to a close. A half of a taco shell could still be seen at ringside as fans filed out.

4.08.2019

Grading My Predictions for Ronda Rousey's First Year in WWE

Photo courtesy WWE.com
In what began as an evaluation of the possibility Asuka and Ronda Rousey could clash at WrestleMania 35, last February prior to Elimination Chamber I imagined what a rookie WWE year(+) could realistically look like for Rousey (as well as the interconnected aspects of WWE's women's divisions). In some cases I wound up thrilled with the bull's-eyes in my dartboard soothsaying. In other cases my darts sailed clear past the board and in to the jugulars of presumably innocent bystanders.

Going major point by major point through what I tried to project and dividing and combining them as fairly as I can estimate, I'll assign 0, 1, or 2 points depending on whether I was completely off, partially on, or spot on, culminating in my final percentage grade. Let's go.


Photo courtesy: WWE.com
Prediction: Ronda Rousey declares WrestleMania intentions at Elimination Chamber
Reality: Ronda Rousey signed WWE contract at Elimination Chamber, kicking off build to WrestleMania match
At risk of starting off on too forgiving a foot here (added to the fact that same-month predictions are far easier than year-out predictions) I'm going to say I nailed this one. Rousey was indeed scheduled in a non-match capacity for Elimination Chamber, and while the Raw contract signing with Kurt Angle, Triple H, and Stephanie McMahon may not have officially firmed up the exact Mania match on the horizon it certainly gave us every clue we needed to determine the direction we were heading. My specific thought was that Rousey would make a surprise appearance after the women's chamber, following the suit of her surprise appearance after the women's Rumble, though of course it made more sense to advertise such a thing ahead of time.
I did also add the detail that the February 5 Raw would include a video package promoting Rousey's Chamber appearance, and not only did the then "Mile 22"-filming Rousey not show up on that Raw in any capacity but she was not even mentioned as WWE seemingly wanted to avoid possible scrutiny of their new star going absentee so shortly after she'd promised to be "full time." I'm letting myself slide on this detail, though rest assured the masochism is coming.
Score: 2

Prediction: Carmella defeats Charlotte Flair for SmackDown Women's Championship at Live Event
Reality: Carmella defeated Charlotte Flair for SmackDown Women's Championship at SmackDown After Mania
No matter how well I felt my predictions were coming together in last year's article, there was always one hiccup: Carmella. I still pride myself on having correctly selected Carmella and Baron Corbin as the winners of the 2017 Money in the Bank briefcases, though with the former being the first briefcase holder of her gender and the latter having dubiously squandered his own briefcase I had a hard time seeing the women's contract going to waste. Selfishly wanting "The Princess of Staten Island" to enjoy as much of a reign as possible while staying out of the way of my post-Mania predictions (which I had felt would include a still-undefeated Asuka) by dropping back to Charlotte Flair at the SmackDown-branded Fastlane, I decided WWE should bolster their conceit that "anything can happen" and pull a rare house show title change. My thought was to have Flair successfully defend her title against Ruby Riott at their February 10 Sacramento show and subsequently get beat down by the Riott Squad before Carmella took advantage of the weakened champion.
There are myriad details I'm considering here, but I'll give myself partial credit as many of these details came to pass in different forms. Flair did not wrestle Riott at that house show (instead defending in a five-way against Carmella, Lana, Becky Lynch, and Natalya) but she did wind up successfully defending the title against Riott at Fastlane. More importantly, Carmella did wind up cashing in on Flair, albeit on the SmackDown after Mania following a beat down by the debuting IIconics.
Score: 1

Prediction: Nia Jax becomes Raw Women's Champion inside Elimination Chamber
Reality: Nia Jax defeated Alexa Bliss for Raw Women's Championship at WrestleMania 34
Instead of seeking her own brand's title in the Chamber, Jax wound up losing to Asuka in an effort to be added to what became Asuka vs. Flair at WrestleMania. It was a passable way to pad Jax' feud with Alexa Bliss - who retained her championship in the Chamber - out to Mania where Jax triumphed (one-on-one in the final women's match of the main card as opposed to a pre-show invitational as I had gone out on a limb to predict prior to the announcement of the Fabulous Moolah Memorial Women's WrestleMania Women's Battle Royal).
I also safely added that the chamber would be utilized to reignite the on-again, off-again rivalry between Sasha Banks and Bayley to help extend it past Mania. This indeed took place when Banks ended the pair's teamwork by kicking Bayley from atop a pod, and the two feuded straight on through what felt like a countless number of 2018's months.
Score: 1

Prediction: Ronda Rousey's first WWE match will be WrestleMania mixed tag
Reality: Ronda Rousey's first WWE match was WrestleMania mixed tag
I got fairly specific as to the beats of the build in the original article, and things went more or less along the straight-forward lines I laid out including the major aspect of Kurt Angle becoming Rousey's partner. It's another easy points pick-up as even though a Rousey/Stephanie McMahon singles match also felt plausible it was far from crazy to suggest the mixed tag of Angle & Rousey vs. Triple H & Stephanie.
Score: 2

Prediction: Asuka selects Charlotte Flair as WrestleMania opponent
Reality: Asuka selected Charlotte Flair as WrestleMania opponent
I preferred my simple yet dramatic thought for Asuka's inevitable challenge, but this was another extremely obvious call with an effective no-nonsense build. Had my predictions begun with the calendar year, I would also be easing in to points for Asuka winning the Rumble (again not a bragging point as this - like Shinsuke Nakamura for the men - was the clearly sensible direction).
Score: 2

Prediction: Asuka defeats Charlotte Flair for SmackDown Women's Championship at WrestleMania 34
Reality: Charlotte Flair retained SmackDown Women's Championship against Asuka at WrestleMania 34
Whelp!
Score: 0

Photo courtesy WWE.com
Prediction: Kurt Angle & Ronda Rousey defeat Triple H & Stephanie McMahon at WrestleMania 34
Reality: Kurt Angle & Ronda Rousey defeated Triple H & Stephanie McMahon at WrestleMania 34
What no one predicted was just how utterly show-stealing this match would be, and I say that as the biggest Triple H fan I know. I had my own thoughts about what exactly would go down, and if the specifics were off the spirit of the contest was there, as was the feel-good (if foregone) result.
Score: 2

Prediction: Stephanie McMahon announces hiatus due to injury at Raw After Mania
Reality: Stephanie McMahon announced hiatus due to injury at Raw After Mania
In classic Stephanie fashion, after being embarrassed at WrestleMania the "Billion Dollar Princess" wore an arm cast and falsely played for sympathy on the April 9th Raw before again falling victim to Rousey's armbar. It's become common for Stephanie to be a player in tentpole builds before receding to more behind-the-scenes and philanthropic focuses during the between months. Her absence this time was briefer than in recent years, as she returned on the May 22 Raw as part of a storyline with Kurt Angle and Kevin Owens and has since appeared sporadically to make match and event announcements.
Score: 2

Prediction: Ronda Rousey's first TV match is 30-second Raw After Mania win over Alexa Bliss
Reality: Ronda Rousey's first TV match was 3-minute August 6 win over Alicia Fox
Here is where my predictions lost the benefit of having been crafted one month in to the WrestleMania build, and it shows. Though keeping Rousey's matches exclusive felt like the way to go (and it was), I bought in to Rousey's declaration that she wanted to be treated like any other wrestler on the roster (in direct contrast to her arguable male counterpart Brock Lesnar). I also felt Rousey would be booked to rise above being treated this way after a series of matches echoing her notoriously swift UFC victories (more on that shortly).
The thought here was that in under 30 seconds Bliss would use her double-jointed elbow to immediately enhance the perception of Rousey's armbar in the context of professional wrestling. Not only did Rousey start off with fairly standard-length matches as opposed to squashes, when she did finally wrestle Bliss it was as part of a lengthy storyline as opposed to a one-off that may admittedly have compromised the valuable Bliss.
Rousey did not wrestle her first TV match (against Alicia Fox) until August 6.
Score: 0

Prediction: Asuka's undefeated streak continues through 2018/19
Reality: Charlotte Flair ended Asuka's undefeated streak at WrestleMania 34
Whelp!
It may bear stating that, once it came to pass, I supported Charlotte Flair's WrestleMania defeat of Asuka. It was not what I had predicted but it was a suitably significant and shocking scenario for such a defeat to occur, and as has been the case with many recent women's matches at Mania it was one of the card's absolute highlights. The unfortunate follow-through was Asuka's title feud with Carmella, which made the "Empress of Tomorrow" out to be a fool more concerned with the antics of Carmella's dopey sidekick James Ellsworth than with winning her first main roster championship. Even in becoming SmackDown Women's Champion at the end of 2018 the incredible Asuka has felt like an also-ran ever since, contrary to her indomitable NXT run I had thought would be repeated on national television. I even thought Asuka might turn heel partway through this run, as she did to an extent during her NXT feud with Ember Moon in effort to keep her prolonged winning streak fresh. Good thing I'm not assigning negative points.
Score: 0

Prediction: Shake-Up swaps Bayley & Becky Lynch, calls up Nikki Cross
Reality: Shake-Up swapped Absolution, Asuka, Natalya, & Riott Squad, called up Zelina Vega
My thought was to freshen the deck by giving who I said would be SmackDown Women's Champion Asuka new long-term rivalries to win against Bayley and Cross, while boosting Lynch to eventually become Rousey's surprise equal. I'll give myself points for Lynch when it becomes more relevant further down, but as far as the Shake-Up goes... nope, nope, and nope. Asuka did make her way to the blue brand here, but not under the auspices of having won its championship as was the basis of many of my predictions.
The Scottish Nikki Cross did make a 'local hero' special appearance on the November 6 United Kingdom edition of SmackDown from Manchester, England where she took on "Irish Lass-Kicker" Becky Lynch, and was officially called up two months later, but has sadly been treated as a complete non-factor early in her main roster TV career.
Score: 0

Prediction: Ronda Rousey wins several non-title matches in under 30 seconds each
Reality: Ronda Rousey won various standard-length matches exclusively on WWE Network
The main theme for my thoughts on how Rousey's first year in WWE would go was that it would overtly echo the UFC beats that made Rousey a household name and kept her that way. After suggesting she would quickly fell Alexa Bliss on April 9, I went on to say she would do the same to Mandy Rose the following week. That would then lead to fellow MMA-style fighter Sonya Deville suffering the same fate another week later in an attempt to avenge her friend. Though I would argue Deville deserves a higher profile role, this felt like a realistic spot that could have made for a hot one-week ratings grab if properly hyped. Per my predictions this series of squashes would have culminated in a more serious challenge from Sasha Banks (who would have been free of the brand-swapped Bayley after grabbing a fistful of tights to defeat her in a post-Mania grudge match). The Banks match would have taken place at Backlash and have been built as Rousey's greatest challenge yet, but the result would have been another quick win for "The Rowdy One." To be clear, Rousey would be the badass babyface here, her string of opponents all heel.
Banks did wind up facing Rousey much later at the 2019 Royal Rumble in what was a nicely built contest belonging among the best singles matches either wrestler has put on to date, but the circumstances were completely different.
Score: 0

Prediction: Nia Jax retains Raw Women's Championship against Alexa Bliss at Backlash
Reality: Nia Jax retained Raw Women's Championship against Alexa Bliss at Backlash
It happened!
Though I did not state it in the original article, my further thoughts were that this would be the true beginning of a Bliss face turn. This was not to be, as was best for the time being, though merchandise machine "Little Miss Bliss" (do you like my hoodie?) has intermittently shown signs of eventually going that direction.
Score: 2

Prediction: Becky Lynch wins Raw-branded Money in the Bank
Reality: Alexa Bliss won co-branded Money in the Bank
Where I had picked a brand-swapped Becky Lynch to win the Raw-branded Money in the Bank briefcase, WWE in fact moved to co-branded special events and Lynch - still on SmackDown - wound up the bridesmaid a second year in a row.
Alexa Bliss was the one to became the second-ever Ms. Money in the Bank, and successfully cashed in on Nia Jax the very same night after forcing a disqualification in Rousey's title match.
Score: 0

Prediction: Ronda Rousey defeats Nia Jax for the Raw Women's Championship at Money in the Bank
Reality: Alexa Bliss cashed in during Nia Jax (c) vs. Ronda Rousey championship match, won Raw Women's Championship at Money in the Bank
WWE wouldn't be able to help themselves, right? Rousey had to become the champ in short order, right? Well, she did wind up with the exact Nia Jax match I had predicted, though the outcome was vastly different. As mentioned above, new Money in the Bank contract holder Alexa Bliss interfered, regaining her championship and subsequently becoming one of Rousey's most important opponents as her impeccable mic skills were able to help "The Baddest Woman on the Planet" practice the art of the wrestling promo (your gauging of her success in this matter may vary). She was also the person Rousey did win the title from not long afterward.
Score: 1

Photo courtesy WWE.com
Prediction: Becky Lynch defeats Ronda Rousey for Raw Women's Championship at SummerSlam
Reality: Ronda Rousey defeated Alexa Bliss for Raw Women's Championship at SummerSlam; Becky Lynch defeated Ronda Rousey for Raw Women's Championship at WrestleMania 35
My timeline was just a little ahead of itself here. I had pre-"Blood from a Blarney Stone" Lynch announcing a Money in the Bank cash-in ahead of time for a match against Rousey at SummerSlam. At this point we would have fresh memories of Rousey mowing through much of the Raw women's division in 30-second matches and essentially "going the distance" to defeat Nia Jax, making Lynch's challenge seem foolhardy. Then, in a massive upset designed to mirror Rousey's shocking UFC loss to Holly Holm, Lynch would secure the champ in a middle-of-the-ring Disarm-Her and leave no choice but submission.
I went on to say Rousey would shun backstage interviews that same night, and leave in a huff. This would be followed up on the next night on Raw when it would be announced that no one in WWE had heard from the AWOL Rousey since SummerSlam. The idea would be to transition Rousey from being the workhorse babyface to a more Lesnar-esque special attraction heel.
As it turned out, SummerSlam was in fact where the firmly babyface Rousey first won the title from Alexa Bliss. It was a big night for both she and Lynch, however, as for her part Lynch capitalized on magnified popularity with an emotional post-match attack on best friend Charlotte Flair once Flair won the title in their thrilling triple threat with Carmella after being added to the match under dubious circumstance. This of course parlayed in to an ill-conceived heel turn attempt for Lynch, but that ship's course was corrected in due time.
Of course, Lynch would go on to become Rousey's biggest rival after the two alpha females retained in their championship matches at the women's event Evolution (against Flair and Nikki Bella, respectively). Added to this, half a year later it is looking as though Rousey may take time off after WrestleMania 35, perhaps in the fashion I suggested here, though prior to this she had already proven her value. While I had thought it could be the optimal strategy for presenting her, she was not simply replicating her MMA career on a pro wrestling stage - a fundamental reason my mid-2018 projections read like an abridged alternate reality almanac - and there was no way WWE would have voluntarily written her off the regular product when they had a choice in the matter.
Score: 1

Prediction: Four Horsewomen of MMA faction debuts October 22
Reality: Three of the Four Horsewomen of MMA remained on NXT
The Horsewomen vs. Horsewomen match has been discussed by fans going back years, continually kept alive by all eight women on social media, and has even been teased as overtly as having the women posture at one another during multiple segments of 2017's inaugural Mae Young Classic in which Shayna Baszler made her indelible WWE debut.
I concocted an elaborate scenario in which Baszler, who would have dropped the NXT women's championship (though I did not specify to whom), would debut on Raw in a main event segment attack on Becky Lynch. Sasha Banks would align with her friend by attempting a save, but she would be thwarted by the simultaneously debuting Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir. As the three newcomers stood tall, Rousey's theme would play and she would appear for the first time since taking her SummerSlam loss so poorly - the leader of the new heel quartet.
I'm tempted to give myself partial credit as all signs wound up pointing to Shayna Baszler going up around this time, especially after dropping the title to her top rival Kairi Sane (though before regaining it soon thereafter), and it was also around this time Duke and Shafir began working NXT house shows. Rousey even wound up turning heel a handful of months later (in completely different fashion for completely different storyline and behind-the-scenes reasons), but none of that is sufficient enough to avoid another goose egg.
Score: 0

Prediction: Four Horsewomen of MMA defeat Four Horsewomen of WWE at Survivor Series
Reality: Ronda Rousey defeated Charlotte Flair via DQ at Survivor Series
Of course this was the next step. It's the new Sting vs. Undertaker. And hey, this one is still a possibility for the future. Duke and Shafir are coming along nicely, and obviously the feud that has taken place between representatives from the opposing sides have become the defining feuds of this moment in time for WWE. As an added detail, I had Baszler and Rousey surviving the match after Baszler scored the final fall on Bayley via referee stoppage.
In actuality Survivor Series' continued "champion vs. champion" gimmick was the key turning point in several of these wrestlers' roads to WrestleMania 35 as Becky Lynch's feud with Ronda hit its most exciting point, yet due to Lynch's concussion suffered as part of that very point the then-probable Mania one-on-one between Rousey and Charlotte Flair had to be moved up to Survivor Series (and it was excellent, go figure). So, sure, a Horsewoman faced one of the other Horsewomen, but I'm not going to count that for partial credit.
Score: 0

Prediction: Ronda Rousey wins Royal Rumble
Reality: Becky Lynch won Royal Rumble
Now not only was I skipping longer periods of time between "big four" milestones as looking so far ahead presents too many variables for specificity (entirely to my final score's advantage, if unfairly, as Rousey's actual WrestleMania storyline wound up becoming insanely convoluted), but I was also past the point where I was even qualifying for partial credit by predicting events more or less correctly despite predicting them to take place at the wrong times. I not only had Rousey winning the Rumble and setting a new women's eliminations record (6), I also had her turning on Shayna Baszler en route to doing so. And then, as the weight-bearing Jenga brick, I had her using her win to challenge Asuka in a post-Rumble promo that would solidify a risky turn back to being a babyface.
Rousey did not win the Baszler-less Royal Rumble because she was still the (babyface) champion at the time and thereby did not even compete in it. Instead she defended her title in the aforementioned match with Sasha Banks, while Becky Lynch lost her own championship rematch against Asuka before entering and winning what I wrote up as one of the best Rumbles ever (for which Charlotte Flair also seemed a probable victor). The only thing I got right here was Asuka having a belt.
Score: 0

Prediction: Asuka retains SmackDown Women's Championship against Ronda Rousey at Wrestlemania 35
Reality: Becky Lynch defeated Charlotte Flair (c) and Ronda Rousey (c) for Raw & SmackDown Women's Championships at WrestleMania 35; Asuka competed in Women's WrestleMania Battle Royal
Whelp!
The closest Asuka came to wrestling Rousey was when Becky Lynch teased selecting her as the Survivor Series replacement and she received a warm reaction despite the agreeable inevitability that Charlotte Flair would be getting the spot. For a while it was looking as though Asuka would defend her SmackDown Women's Championship against Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose at Mania, but less than two weeks out she got the last-minute booking middle finger of dropping the title to Flair to add a bevy of further pros and cons to that larger storyline. Asuka would up the second-to-last eliminated in the pre-show Battle Royal, forced again to the background. A couple of the silver linings here include the possibility of fewer (thereby more meaningful) titles in WWE's near future, as well as a manufactured fan outcry in favor of the "Empress."
I had Asuka and Rousey being kept apart until a go-home face-to-face based around the stories of Rousey's quest to regain respect and Asuka's lack thereof which would culminate in the two earning that respect for one another on Mania's stage. To be honest picking a result for this match that was never to take place became the most difficult part of writing the original predictions article. There would be arguments to be made both ways, contingent on Rousey's health and future plans. It's even more difficult now to regain the bygone head space where this match felt probable, as while Asuka slid Rousey went on to face both Flair and Lynch in WrestleMania's coveted closing match. Though I wish I'd gone on record predicting that main event slotting (for which I also envisioned a live Joan Jett performance, as unbelievable as it may come across to say after such a thing came to be fact) I'm really just contented it happened at all, and as far from some mere token at that.
Score: 0


Photo courtesy WWE.com
Final Grade: 40%
Below half is even lower than I was anticipating going in to this follow-up, and even so it's helped somewhat by my method of breakdown. Perhaps I could have been more or less generous with the points in certain areas, but considering how much can change overnight in WWE let alone over the course of a year I honestly feel quite good about some of the general things I scored on such as the rise of Becky Lynch. I might have made it to 50% had I taken the then-unthinkable risk of predicting Asuka to lose to Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania 34, thus presumably seeing the writing on the wall for (some form of) Flair vs. Rousey at WrestleMania 35. I may have failed miserably according to letter grades, but I won where it counts: in my [insert internal organ of choice].
The important thing is that, through the highs and the lows, the whirlwind matches and the questionable promos, Rousey's first year in WWE became one of the company's most fascinating rookie years to follow and undoubtedly one we will be discussing for a very long time. And the most important thing is that Rousey achieved what she was positioned to do - help raise the profile of women's wrestling the same way she did for women's mixed martial arts.

3.01.2019

Extracts, February 2019

"Close" (Vicky Jewson, 2019)
Select review blurbs collected from Letterboxd & Twitter

Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez, 2019)
If "RoboCop" took place in the "Titanic" movie universe under the narrative guidance of whoever was responsible for "Street Sharks". If you can jive with contrivances in the school of a Saturday morning cartoon, there is enough in "Alita" to leave you interested in the clear direction for a follow-up without all the origin story-itis. The best part is that one Toto song finally makes sense. Also 100% thought that was James Cameron before he took the goggles off.

Close (Vicky Jewson, 2019)
Tomb Raider by way of Tom Clancy. Though rarely rising above direct-to-whatever sensibility, there is plenty to mine from this extremely expedient Noomi paycheck. And there is little more agreeable in cinema today than Noomi getting a paycheck.

High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh, 2019)
Soderbergh at his Soderberghiest. Every hallmark is here. A single, static camera placement for a conversation about contracts can be studied the way entire classic scenes are studied.

The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, 2018)
Unlike “On the Silver Globe” proving unfinished films can be monumental, there is sadly so little to “The Other Side of the Wind” that it leaves me wondering only these two things: why anyone even tried, and whether latter years Welles was more bitter or more horny.
This review blurb led to an intriguing conversation with a Welles enthusiast on Twitter, in which we observed among other things that "Other Side" evokes John Cassavetes' "Faces".

Velvet Buzzsaw (Dan Gilroy, 2019)
Glimpses of an interesting film biting at the business of modern art that suffocate when stitched to an embarrassingly pedestrian, go-nowhere “A Nightmare on Elm Street” wannabe. One would be forgiven for watching due to the Jake Gyllenhaal factor, and rewarded only by another look at Daveed Diggs.

"Velvet Buzzsaw" (Dan Gilroy, 2019)

2.11.2019

The Best Films of 2018

Honorable Mentions: Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard), Widows (Steve McQueen), BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee), First Reformed (Paul Schrader), Tully, (Jason Reitman), Dogman (Matteo Garrone)

10. Unsane, Steven Soderbergh
9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman
8. If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
7. The Old Man & the Gun, David Lowery
6. Creed II, Steven Caple, Jr.
5. 江湖儿女 [Ash Is Purest White], Jia Zhangke
4. Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
3. Transit, Christian Petzold
2. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Ethan & Joel Coen
1. The House that Jack Built, Lars von Trier

It seems crazy to think that all I heard about "The House that Jack Built" before giving it a go myself was that Lars von Trier had finally gone off the deep end to make a full gonzo exploitation piece with the sole purpose of putting emotionless violence on a screen. This may have seemed conceivable after the greatly anticipated "Nymphomaniac" failed to narratively justify its own envelope-pushing content despite great effort, but it's so distant from the truth. With his latest Cannes-stirrer von Trier has turned inward to develop an explicitly detailed and absolutely fascinating autobiographical dissertation on artistry itself (including stumbling blocks, manipulation, meticulous study, rule-breaking, happy accidents, narcissism, experimentation, and finding comfort and confidence in one's artistic identity) as well as the interpretation of art (such as effects of casual and professional criticism, opinion of one's audience, conformity, divergence, and the terms of legacy) through the metaphorical characterization of a necessitated detachment from sentimentality. On paper certain choices may read as tacky and self-important but in context feel earned and insightful, and through it all not once does von Trier stray from his meticulously composed and edited methods of messing with us thereby driving home his overarching thesis through perhaps his most thorough evidence in favor of it. To send it off, the final segment contains per my estimation by far the most sumptuous and resonant cinema I've seen the filmmaker produce to date.

With a most impressive catalog topped by all-time majors like "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "The Big Lebowski" and otherwise comprised of such potent works as "Burn After Reading" and "Blood Simple", it's incredible to see the Coens maintaining their steep standard across the decades. "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" manages to thematically tie disparate western subgenres in a completely enrapturing and perfectly paced anthology on the human condition akin, quite honestly, to "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" in its chapter-based existential brilliance. It is one of a rare echelon of films in possession of effervescent intangibility that practically generates a purifying chemical release enjoyed throughout its running time. Between this being a seemingly widely viewed and well-liked Netflix exclusive and "Red Dead Redemption 2" being a masterful new benchmark in open world gaming, 2018 may come to be viewed as the time the cowboy retook pop culture. And... I'm sure it must be but mere coincidence that my two favorite films of the year are each told in six parts and conclude with... well, you know.


Out of time and corporeality, "Transit" is almost sneaky in its mesmerizing precision that swiftly takes hold and passes like a dream. Added to "House" and "Ballad" this now makes for a hat trick of top films involving a literal or allegorical [insert spoiler and shifty eyes emoji here].

At once one of the most narrative-driven documentaries I've seen as well as one of the most candid, "Minding the Gap" bears its strength in near every instant, thriving just as much on its hangout quintessence as its sense of organic discovery.

In "Ash Is Purest White" the marital duo of Jia Zhangke and Zhao Tao have again crafted a sprawling and cozily signatured examination of magnetic characters navigating life in contemporary China, featuring tangents this time perhaps even richer than the throughlines.

At once a tried-and-true "Rocky" entry as well as new ground for the franchise, "Creed II" surpasses its immediate predecessor under a newer director thanks to the surprisingly subdued and melancholy approach to the Drago family dynamic as well as an overriding somberness that defines the piece as a whole.

Lowery may undermine the effectiveness of the charm in "The Old Man & the Gun" by fading back up from an ideal conclusion point to show the epilogue of this true events biography, but the bulk of the piece feels right in fraternity with the spirit of "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid".

An assured step for Jenkins from his already attention-grabbing "Moonlight", "If Beale Street Could Talk" facilely coheres on the strength of its palpable central romance, virtually ever-present music inhabiting its spaces, and a dedication to the spirit of James Baldwin.

Even without the familiar Peter Parker as its fulcrum, the proudly peculiar "Into the Spider-Verse" is both the best embodiment of the character's spirit we've gotten on screen as well as a long-absent reminder of how cool movies about colorful superheroes can be in general.

With "Unsane" the curious, medium-testing side of Soderbergh again elevates a basic concept with his utterly impeccable cinematography skills, resulting in tight and efficient entertainment.

Complete 2018 list on Letterboxd (rankings subject to change).

2.01.2019

Extracts, January 2019

"White Boy Rick" (Yann Demange, 2018)
Select review blurbs collected from Letterboxd & Twitter

The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood, 2018)
Timeline discernible from the “Letters from Iwo Jima” poster on the kid’s wall. Proud of Clint for including the phrase “Instagram-worthy.”

Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard, 2018)
As if a ‘90s Tarantino wannabe with a dash of surreality was originally intended for the stage and somehow actually turned out okay, “Bad Times” dwells on its concepts with assurance and (mostly) elevates its own material scene after scene. Also Jon Hamm sounds exactly like John Cena and it freaked me out.

Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada, 2018)
There’s enough to admire, particularly in Daveed Diggs, that I’ll likely recall it somewhat fondly even though it tries to tank itself with nearly every other scene. Almost as tense as David Ayer on a good day and as unsubtle as Oliver Stone on a bad one.

Dogman (Matteo Garrone, 2018) Bumped from The Best Films of 2018
"Dogman" hardly masks its ordinary anti-fascist parable beneath the veil of a dog groomer learning to manipulate people in the same way he does his business subjects, though it thrives on an incredible charm achieved in tandem through Garrone's sympathetic camera and Marcello Fonte's instantly winning performance.

The Favourite (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2018)
Not the best Lanthimos but strong enough that I easily lost track of how many times the seniors behind me said, “Oh, heavens!” Was Nicholas Hoult on stilts or was everyone else filmed with Hobbit technology?

The Land of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener, 2018)
If I remember it as anything other than “that one Ben Mendelsohn movie,” it will be as a film more concerned with the yuppie suburbia it may or may not be trying to chastise than with its awfully distracting continuity errors. It is inoffensively brisk, though. An acceptable $7.99 red blend from CVS even though Total Wine was right there.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam, 2018)
Feeling nigh every bit the '90s transplant it is - for which mileage may vary - Gilliam's longstanding bugaboo gets off to a fine start, aided by the fortune of an Adam Driver upgrade, yet wears itself out with each subsequent blurring of lines that mutates its trajectory beyond recognition by the end.

Tully (Jason Reitman, 2018) Bumped from The Best Films of 2018
"Tully" rests well shy of the prior collaboration between Reitman, Diablo Cody, and Charlize Theron, but uses an idea that likely sounded rote on paper to speak agreeable truth to how our lives tend to be compromised against expectation as our youth escapes before we realize it was even on the run.

White Boy Rick (Yann Demange, 2018)
As much vintage soul cinema spirit as can be reasonably wished for in a 2018 film starring white people. A seedy enough image of Detroit I almost expected RoboCop to save the day. Also, in one scene a character is nicknamed “Scarface” then walks inside and “Serpico” is on TV. Liked it.

1.29.2019

Why WWE's 2019 Women's Royal Rumble was Great

Photo courtesy WWE.com
2018's inaugural women's Royal Rumble match was a long time coming, and lived up the anticipation as WWE's past, present, and future from Madusa to Asuka to Ember Moon rose to the main event opportunity. The overall standard was refreshingly elevated after an arguable downswing in the past handful of annual Rumble shows, and expectations were forgivingly tempered for the sophomore edition to hit equal highs. But oh, did it ever surpass those expectations, possibly becoming one of the very best Rumbles ever.


Photo courtesy WWE.com
NXT Represented

Foremost, I will remember this Rumble for just how prominently it featured some of NXT's brightest prospects, including some that haven't even been on the weekly NXT TV product yet. On PW Torch's weekly podcast PWT Talks NXT, I refrained from predicting more than a couple slots going to WWE's developmental brands (more on who I got right and wrong in a moment) as I figured many unannounced roles would be going to surprise appearances by former WWE "Divas" such as Eve Torres or Melina, and perhaps some recurring cameos by veterans like Ivory or Lita.
Recent call-ups Nikki Cross and Lacey Evans both had their moments to shine. The latter opened the entire affair with a promo before squaring off with veteran gatekeeper and her opponent du jour Natalya and going on to last nearly half the match. This is encouraging, as Evans' evolution in NXT was fascinating and promising to track. Cross' time was more fleeting, but the magnetically manic character Sanity's Scot portrays is practically immune to embarrassment and she efficiently maximized her minutes to make a good impression as she is wont to do.
Then my 2/3rds of my heart burst atwain when Xia Li's music hit at #11. Li debuted in the 2017 Mae Young Classic against Mercedes Martinez and has since been a standout on NXT's Central Florida "Coconut Loop" of house shows. Despite reaching the second round after an excellent match with Karen Q in the 2018 Mae (and working a dark match at the January 3rd NXT tapings during which she astoundingly box-jumped to perch upon the shoulders of an upright Lacey Evans), Li has yet to appear on NXT TV, making this entrance a massive surprise. Adorably, just as Michael Cole was introducing the newcomer to the home audience by name and nationality, Li herself shouted to the crowd, "My name is Xia Li; I am from China!"
Speaking of adorable, the remaining 1/3rd of my heart exploded in shards when the Mae Young Classic's first winner and former NXT Women's Champion Kairi Sane ran to the ring on her toes while peering through her telescope. It was at this moment, with no thirds of heart remaining, that I thought, "Rhea, don't you dare." Sane was a last-minute replacement for the injured Alicia Fox in the 2018 Rumble, and she was more formidable here as she lasted almost 20 minutes and assisted in an elimination compared to her prior goose egg.
Then, I couldn't have been any more flabbergasted when none other than the miniature American Ninja Warrior Kacy Catanzaro came in at #19. Under (mild) pressure to say something of consequence when forecasting NXT's possibilities for Sunday night, I decided to cash in on a barely explicable hunch I've been harboring that relatively new Performance Center project Catanzaro would appear on main roster programming before NXT programming. How in the world this wound up being correct I will never have any idea. I even said she would save herself in the acrobatic tradition of Kofi Kingston (and now Naomi) by shimmying up a ringpost, and wouldn't you know that's precisely what happened. Catanzaro did work two matches at the 2018 Mae, with the respective members of the "R&R" tandem Reina Gonzalez and Rhea Ripley against whom she's had a great deal of practice, though nothing in those matches felt unrehearsed. The natural chaos of the Rumble proved to be the best exemplification to date of Catanzaro's true adaptation to this whole wrestling thing.
And I'm going to have to have a talk with 2018's true breakout star Rhea Ripley, because, when I had little left to give, she emerged before the reported 48,193 fans at #24. If you didn't see the first Mae Young Classic, if you haven't seen any "Coconut Loop" shows, if you don't watch NXT UK, there's no way Ripley didn't catch your attention. Even if you didn't see the second Mae where Ripley tore through the rounds and was clearly booked to lose to Tegan Nox but galvanized her new persona by perfectly improvising upon Nox' devastating injury then went on to put together an unplanned 13-minute match with Io Shirai in less than an hour's time, her boot stamping down outside the dugout at Chase Field still raised your eyebrows. Looking every bit the equal of her more storied competition, Ripley paid off on her practice with Catanzaro in a big spot, and eliminated three people to tie Ruby Riott as well as her and Riott's eventual eliminator Bayley with the second-most eliminations of the match behind Charlotte Flair. I had predicted that the second Mae winner and new NXT UK Women's Champion Toni Storm would get this spot, but it was all the more rewarding to see the first NXT UK Women's Champion Ripley in there instead.
Far from forgotten, Candice LeRae and Mae finalist Io Shirai were also featured to bring NXT's count to six (not including Cross and Evans). Also of note, NXT referee and boon to the entire NXT roster Jessika Carr made another main roster appearance as an outside official and wound up being involved in the climax.


Photo courtesy WWE.com
Current Main Roster Strengths Highlighted

Though subjectively the new blood stood out to me most here, the Rumble was nothing if not a grand reassurance of just how damn good all the WWE's women's divisions are.
In her aforementioned co-starting position, the glue of WWE's women's scene for over a decade Natalya lasted longer than anyone else including the original record-setter Sasha Banks in 2018's Rumble. Joining her shy of that 56-minute run was Ember Moon, who has stood out despite inconsistent booking following her call-up to Monday Night Raw last year. When Moon appeared at #6 my first thought was that I would love to see her become the iron woman of the evening, and that wish basically came true even though she failed to score any eliminations.
Since their inauspicious photocopy of a call-up that turned all three members heel simply to stock the shelves of the then-upcoming first women's Rumble in 2017, the Riott Squad has become one of the true highlights of Raw. Liv Morgan - who has excelled beyond her tepid babyface act in NXT - was hilariously tossed out by stable rival Natalya in less than ten seconds at #4. #12 Sarah Logan is a natural babyface, but has sufficiently bonded with the riotous ways for now and wound up fairing slightly better at around five minutes even though that time was highlighted by flopping and flying for Kairi Sane. Ruby Riott, however, sauntered in at #21 and lived up to the reputation she's made for herself as a real ring general, even briefly doing battle with fellow general Bayley - a newer favorite pairing of mine to watch between bells. As a trio, the Squad reinforced the threat they pose to the burgeoning women's tag scene by creating dangerous variables inside and outside the ropes.
Having risen far beyond her interest-piquing yet less heralded beginnings in NXT as one of the headsails of WWE's flagship show, Alexa Bliss made her greatly anticipated return to action late on the entry list at #26 after a concerning stay in concussion protocol. In what could be the beginning of a babyface trajectory for the deservedly popular Bliss (also a top favorite of mine), the five-footer premiered a new standing backflip maneuver before ending Ember Moon's marathon and taking out a menacingly game, Gina Carano-esque Sonya Deville (from whom I'm certain we've only seen the beginning).
Coming up on a year with the main roster that has suited their comical heel characters just swell, IIconics Billie Kay and Peyton Royce played their usual shtick to welcome end. In what may signal a return to somewhat greater prominence, the underappreciated Dana Brooke had a short yet impressive showing as entrant #22 that she followed up nicely on the next night on Raw (making her my early and agreeable call for WrestleMania battle royal winner). Then my soft spot for Carmella felt warranted yet again as the unique talent rose to the occasion of the #30 position. Could have gone for a dance break, though.
Of these who all came up short of the win, Charlotte Flair was the obvious pillar. The moment the Amazon drove to the ring with a glower and a purpose at lucky #13, the tone shifted. From that moment, Flair was the fulcrum of the proceedings, and the match overall was as much about her seething pursuit of dominance as it was the eventual winner.


Photo courtesy WWE.com
The Weaving Narratives

So often Royal Rumbles and battle royals, etcetera, become about groups of people laying in wait or working meaningless spots in slow motion while the focus trains in on a single story at a time. Excellent though it was, the 2018 women's Rumble became a prime example of this. And that's not an accusation; such simply comes with the territory. So it is all the more outstanding that the wrestlers of the 2019 women's Rumble so deftly juggled multiple narratives throughout the match's 70+ minutes, hopping in and out of ongoing threads and breaking away for appropriate interludes along the way without forgetting the key elements as can so easily happen at this event. The waiting must occur by design, but it nary felt inorganic.
As described above, Charlotte Flair seeing (and being) red was the throughline that much of the match was built on. As if she hadn't already proven herself over and over (most recently in back-to-back vicious outings against Lynch at Evolution and Ronda Rousey at Survivor Series), with a cavalcade of contemporaries and up-and-comers aiming her way Flair looked perhaps more supreme than ever.
Zelina Vega has been remarkable in about every appearance since arriving on NXT TV as Andrade "Cien" Almas' manager in 2017, yet she still feels like a well-kept secret with mega babyface potential. Her hiding-beneath-the-ring gag suited her perfectly, and was made all the better as she beautifully hit her every mark to continually remind us of her presence by popping her head out from the ring skirt to survey damage and cackle at those who'd been eliminated. Though I respect Dylan Postl as much as the next person you won't find me defending his subsequent resurrection of the Hornswoggle gimmick, but at least Vega's role demonstrated her performance ability while it lasted and this was far from the worst comic relief offender in Rumble history.
Of course many individual wrestlers received spotlights as detailed, and with rare exception these flowed seamlessly with the match as a whole. All the while, though, there coursed the underlying eagerness to see whether Becky Lynch would enter and, if so, whether she would win. Such a thing could manifest as a dark cloud over any event, though in this case it served to make it all much more exciting.


Photo courtesy WWE.com
That Moment

I can't be the only one who noticed. Tell me I'm not. Because this actually happened, and it was magnificent.
Charlotte Flair has changed the perception of the tall blonde archetype in WWE, and cemented herself as the prototype other tall blondes (like Rhea Ripley) wind up being compared to before setting themselves apart (like Rhea Ripley). Lacey Evans is one of those tall blondes, and before Sunday had never shared a ring with Flair. It was a moment begging to go down, and when it did it was like a dance floor in an '80s movie that suddenly goes to slow motion as the masses fall to the background and the leads feel like the only people in the world.
The two teased-up, heavily breathing combatants met in each others' paths, and locked eyes. It was serendipity. The stadium lights dimmed to a deep red. Maria Kanellis was making her entrance for a planned spot with Evans and Flair, hence the lighting, but the coinciding milestone in the ring demanded the camera remain with the embroiled wrestlers as much as possible.
Then Kanellis' theme music made itself known to the senses. With Evans and Flair heatedly standing off, their surroundings bathed in crimson as if by an alchemical reaction created by their proximity, the hair metal-like guitar riff bled in to the balladic belting of, "Here's to the greatest love I've ever known! I'm burning up in your love, your love..."
Pure magic. Tell Tom Cruise to scratch that Top Gun sequel; we're covered.


Photo courtesy WWE.com
The Man

Becky Lynch has been steadily earning goodwill since turning face against Sasha Banks on NXT back in 2015. An indefatigable hero of the people and expert social media tactician, it felt dubious when she wasn't positioned particularly strongly in her division over the past couple years.
Then she was forced to share the spotlight with the entitled Charlotte Flair for what was to be one of her biggest singles matches against Carmella at last year's SummerSlam. The beatdown Flair suffered by Lynch's hand following that match felt like a welcome enhancement upon the should-be champion we already knew. It was a catharsis that played upon real life circumstance, but the following Tuesday's SmackDown revealed that WWE had intended it as a heel turn with Lynch now scripted to arbitrarily accuse fans for not believing in her despite bountiful ready evidence to the contrary.
If this sounds familiar, it's because it's strikingly similar to the chronicle of Daniel Bryan circa 2013-2014.
As luck would have it, however, Lynch got punched in the face. In an indelible, echelon-leaping moment I've chosen to label as "Blood from a Blarney Stone," the increasingly badass Lynch invaded Raw to target Ronda Rousey and, courtesy a flailing Nia Jax, got a potato to end all potatoes this side of John Cena's 2015 nasal relocation. That the out-on-her-feet lass withstood the punishment, her face an explosion of blood and her synapses on sudden vacation, and still came out on top with an unfazed expression made for one of the greatest Raw moments in recent memory as well as the galvanization of the new Becky Lynch - the most popular wrestler on the planet.
Recognizing the Bryan parallels, I repeatedly suggested on Twitter that we fans need prepare to endure further frustration due to apparent booking dissonance en route to gratification with Lynch. I suggested WWE was going to string us along in to believing we willed the wrestler to the pinnacle of the business all on our own. This suggestion felt justified when Lynch submitted to Asuka in the opening singles contest of the Royal Rumble event proper, just as Bryan had been decimated by Bray Wyatt in the opening of the 2014 Rumble event. Along with the thought of Lynch withstanding Rousey's armbar all the more tantalizing after seeing her succumb to a modified Asuka Lock, it seemed we were indeed going to have to buckle in for a months-long struggle for Lynch to find her way to her destined WrestleMania match. I began envisioning Lynch having to fight through Stephanie McMahon to earn her way in to the main event, a la Bryan with Triple H. It seemed that way, until Lana feebly limped out to the women's Rumble at #28, having taken a spill from the apron on the pre-show.
The writing was on the wall at that point - Lynch would successfully demand Lana's spot from Fit Finlay (an individual it is typically wise to flee lest your name is Becky). A Flair victory did still feel plausible since the show still had about two hours with which to win the crowd back, but in a move WWE has reserved for only spare occasions in its current age they gave us what we so desired to experience.
Be it a singles match or triple threat (and the door is wide open for the latter, which I expect to be contested as we speed toward April), Becky Lynch is the WrestleMania main event. She is the best-received Royal Rumble winner in years and years, with likely my favorite Rumble ever preceding her victory.