Sports

Elimination Chamber Was Exactly What It Needed To Be

Sasha Banks turned on Bayley, and Alexa Bliss won the women's side. Braun Strowman destroyed everything, and Roman Reigns won a date with Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania.
Screen capture via WWE Network

On paper, the concept for the Elimination Chamber is great: four wrestlers are held in plexiglass chambers until one is released, every five minutes, adding to what starts out as a two-person match. This is done inside a cage of chains and even more plexiglass. Things ratchet up until a chaotic wrestling stew is created, a six-person (seven this year) maelstrom of simulated violence. There’s a little Royal Rumble to it, a little Hell in a Cell, and even a touch of Wargames. There’s always the added prestige of a title or WrestleMania spot on the line, too, adding a little more juice to whatever narratives hold sway coming in. The Elimination Chamber looks cool, sounds cool, and should absolutely be cool.

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But it rarely turns out that way. Elimination Chamber matches tend to have an unsettling plodding quality to them. It’s some combination of the cameras having to dodge the chains ,and the space the plexiglass holding pods take up. The matches feel constrained and claustrophobic. The best we usually get as viewers is a wild moment or two—pods exploding as people get thrown through them or Rob Van Dam simultaneously nearly blowing out his knees and decapitating Triple H with a splash.

The match is limited to the titular Elimination Chamber pay-per-view these days and serves as a means of passing a title shot at Wrestlemania to the winner. Sunday’s Elimination Chamber matches (there were two, with the women finally getting a crack at it) were predictable but, compared to most years, refreshingly fun.

The women’s match was the better of the two in most respects, but especially in terms of storytelling. Even before Asuka’s arrival and Alexa Bliss’s dominance of the title scene, Sasha Banks felt dangerously aimless. Her character doesn’t sit well as a face, at least not over an extended period of time, and the initial (and deserved) mutual congratulating sessions on assembling a women’s roster which can and does wrestle has moved from necessary to cloying. Babyfaces mostly deliver speeches about how all they ever wanted to do was wrestle and now they’re finally in the big time, and no one has been hurt more by that than Banks, who is at her best when she’s mean and petty.

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The move back to proper heeldom was sealed when she double-crossed Bayley during the Elimination Chamber match. It was the right move for both women—as up and down as Banks has seemed, Bayley has been nothing but down for months.

Perhaps nobody’s been more mishandled than poor Bayley. She’s never been the greatest worker, but she’s always had a gimmick kids love. In another world, she’s the female equivalent to John Cena, a four-color superhero who beats the odds and dresses in really bright colors which hypnotize kids under the age of 14 to buy bags of merchandise. Instead, she’s been an amiable screw-up for the vast majority of her time on the main roster. Recall that, in 2015, Banks and Bayley put on one of the greatest matches in WWE’s history at NXT Takeover Brooklyn. They can go when they’re given the chance. These two women need each other and now they have it once again.

Alexa Bliss won, which was entirely expected. She’s due for a Wrestlemania showdown with Asuka, and nothing is going to alter that. After the match, she cut a promo mocking precisely the “follow your dreams” rhetoric which has worn so thin in WWE’s babyfaces. Feigning the sentiment, the camera cuts to a little girl in the audience before Bliss announces that nobody watching will ever achieve their dreams.

Bliss is rather polarizing. She’s still rough around the edges in the ring, and her meteoric rise to prominence over the Four Horsewomen seems to rankle some. There’s also a whiff of the old style of women’s wrestling about her, with the blonde hair and fitness model background, a sense that her presence at the top of the women’s card might be an indication that Vince McMahon’s old horndog dismissal of women’s pro wrestling might come to the fore again, that all of this goes away in an instant.

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This underestimates her. She’s one of the best promos in WWE and she emotes even better. She’s also a natural heel, at least as much as Sasha Banks, and eminently hateable. Yes her win was predictable, but her loss to Asuka at Wrestlemania will be, too, and it will be all the sweeter because of what Bliss is good at, not worse because of what she’s mediocre at. Six weeks of Bliss talking shit to Asuka while mostly running away from her, possibly with Nia Jax thrown in as a foil for both women, seems like a pretty good feud to me.

The men’s match was no less predictable. Roman Reigns won and he’ll face Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania for the second time in four years. This has been the plan for ages, a means of transferring Lesnar’s reputation to Reigns via the mythic wrestling laws of heat transference: by vanquishing someone else, you vanquish all the people he or she has vanquished. By this law, Roman Reigns will be transformed into a bloated misshapen thing, swollen from devouring the pro wrestling elixir Lesnar has built up by destroying countless pro wrestlers over the years. Roman Reigns as Tetsuo the transformed. Roman Reigns as god-king.

I am infinitely weary of Roman Reigns, but I’m finally rooting for him. Brock Lesnar’s run needs to end. Having a part-timer as champion more often than not sucks an incredible amount of oxygen out of the room. Lesnar is largely an absentee and even the omnipresent Paul Heyman’s promos have begun to sound more tired than anything. We’ve done Lesnar over the past few years, even more than we’ve done Reigns.

What was cool about the men’s Elimination Chamber was, once again, Braun Strowman. He eliminated five men before Reigns finally eliminated him, in turn, but never once did he look weak. He looked as he always does: strong, invincible except at great cost or shenanigans, and extremely cool. Strowman is fun and, against all expectations, it’s been a year and WWE still hasn’t screwed it up. In fact, he’s reaching that coveted and quite rare status where he doesn’t need the title to be a top guy anymore. He’s just Braun Strowman, the awesome big guy who throws trucks around.

Predictability isn’t always a terrible thing in pro wrestling. It’s basically the same half dozen stories told over and over in different configurations. Elimination Chamber offered that predictability, but it also worked in some cool bits like Strowman and the Bliss/Bayley dynamic to give people who aren’t at the top interesting things to do. As pro wrestling shows go, that’s not a terrible status quo to maintain going into the biggest pay-per-view of the year.