Here's What Happened When the WWE Brought its Weird, Wild World to Melbourne
The annual event saw victories for John Cena, Sami Zayn, Sasha Banks and others. Also, Chris Jericho declared himself "the biggest wanker in this place, man!"
Screenshot via Google
Rod Laver Arena's close to its 15,000 capacity, and at least a third are kids. Draped in brightly coloured WWE merch, they chant "Let's go Cena!" Grown men yell in their faces, "CENA SUCKS!" Professional wrestling is about conflict - yes, even between adults and children - and this is all part of the game. There's no John Cena without "Cena sucks", no admirable babyface without a dastardly heel. But ultimately, we're all here for the same reason. Whether you're a parent, child, or twentysomething millennial with too much disposable income, wrestling's still real to all us, damnit.
Apollo Crews defeats Sheamus in the opening match. From where we're sitting in the nosebleeds, the two look like action figures, but the WWE has storytelling down to a science. With just a glance, even from a hundred rows away, you know exactly who to cheer and boo. Apollo Crews is clearly SmackDown's next big thing. All he needs is that one electric feud to put him over the top - but this rivalry with Sheamus ain't it. Still, he matches Sheamus move for move, arm drag for arm drag, and his standing moonsault is a thing of beauty. Crews dodges a Brogue kick, Sheamus picks Crews up for the White Noise, but Crews rolls him up and steals the win - one, two, three.
Braun Strowman defeats Jey Uso in a surprisingly well-thought out match. Seeing him on TV is one thing, but Strowman's so huge in person that the crowd barely knows how to react. Jey throws forearms, kicks, anything to take Strowman down - and when he finally does, the crowd erupts. But it's not meant to be - Strowman's reverse chokeslam takes him out. It's been fun watching Strowman squash anonymous jobbers on Raw, but matches like this bode well for his future. Within his limitations, Strowman plays the monster heel to perfection.
But this is a house show, where the faces go over, so the Usos land a double superkick on Strowman after the match. This is the biggest difference between house shows and live TV: Raw and SmackDown exist to set up feuds for future payoffs, but tonight, everything exists in the present tense, to satisfy the crowd here and now. None of these matches have any long-term consequences, but there's no pressure on the talent to deliver anything but a believable, entertaining match. What more can you ask for?
The New Day retains the tag team titles against The Club - did you expect otherwise? In one of the more baffling angles of 2016, Big E's off TV and live shows due to a Club-inflicted testicle injury. Still, watching Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods pinball around the ring is plenty entertaining. No one blends physical comedy with serious tag team wrestling quite like them. Anderson and Gallows start to dominate the match, until surprise! - Big E makes his entrance speech mid-match, and Kofi hits a Trouble in Paradise off the distraction for a pin. It's a throwback to their former heel tactics, where they'd steal unexpected wins out of practically thin air. Eighteen months ago, they were still getting booed; now, they're second only to Cena.
Rusev retains the US title against Titus O'Neil in a three-minute squash. Honestly, if these two are getting paid that much to work matches this short, they're living life right. Speaking of which, Lana cuts a heel promo before the match, where she calls Australia's Olympians failures, and Rusev a "true Australian hero". It's hard to argue with that.
Roman Reigns and Finn Balor defeat Seth Rollins and Chris Jericho in what's easily the best match of the night. Rollins and Jericho might be heels, but they're hailed like conquering heroes. That is, until Jericho walks with excruciating slowness to the ring, a glittering scarf barely covering his dad bod, and gets on the mic - "quiet. Quiet. Quiet. QUIET!" In classic Aussie fashion, a "you are a wanker" chant breaks out, and Jericho eats it up. "I don't know what a wanker is, but if they're calling me one, it must be good... I'm the biggest wanker in this place, man!"
This match is fascinating - it's constantly reinventing itself. Jericho's a comic heel, but he's a genius at crafting matches and playing off the crowd. Rollins is a dominant heel, but he's so athletic that every move he makes gets cheers. Reigns is his exact opposite, a face who gets the biggest heat of anyone in the company. And Balor's the new babyface with something to prove, but he's hardly the underdog. Each pairing changes the dynamic - Jericho mocks Reigns, Balor humiliates Jericho, Rollins and Balor trade enzuigiris for Pele kicks with ridiculous athleticism. That Balor-Rollins SummerSlam match can't come soon enough.
Sasha Banks retains the women's championship against Charlotte, but it feels more like a Sasha victory lap than the tooth-and-nails match they had on Raw two weeks ago. They're both future Hall of Famers, and the WWE women's division has never had more potential. But women's wrestling doesn't yet have the respect it deserves. After treating women's matches as glorified bathroom breaks for years, the WWE has subconsciously conditioned audiences to expect less. The crowd's attention isn't all there... yet. But in an early highlight, the two trade pin after pin, until they literally end up rolling like a ball around the ring. Charlotte gets up, dizzy, and does the iconic Ric Flair flop. We all love Sasha, but Charlotte's every bit the star, too.
Sami Zayn defeats Kevin Owens in the night's most physically brutal match. It lacks the emotional charge of their Battleground bout, but their chemistry is so strong, their athleticism so fluid, that the two really could fight forever. They pull out exploder suplexes, Germans, superkicks - and still only scratch the surface of their seemingly infinite movesets. This is a match aimed directly at wrestling nerds, and despite Owens' ruthless heel work, the two get equal cheers. But when Owens delivers a running cannonball to Zayn in the corner, even the kids can't help but cheer for the bad guy.
John Cena defeats AJ Styles in a thrilling, if overlong main event. Styles is surely the MVP of 2016 so far, but Cena, of course, gets the night's biggest reaction. Styles is more relaxed than usual - he spends a good third of the match either taunting the crowd, or holding Cena in excruciatingly long headlocks. But it works - the crowds duel "Let's go Cena!" "AJ Styles!" chants throughout, and the big moments feel even bigger.
Each man makes the other look like a million bucks. They trade counters, submissions, suplexes - Styles even pulls out a rare 450 splash. When he hits an enormous leaping kick over Cena and onto the referee, The Club emerge and run interference on Cena. By some miracle, Cena kicks out, and so his Superman routine begins. He ducks a chair shot, takes out Gallows and Anderson, then hits one more Attitude Adjustment on Styles for the victory. We've seen it a hundred times before on TV, but in person, it's electric.
Cena sits on the steel chair he just avoided, and delivers a heartfelt apology for missing last year's Australian tour - his first absence in fifteen years. He's just playing himself, but he's ringmaster, class teacher, corporate mascot and cool dad all at once. Behind us, a young boy yells in the manliest voice he can summon, "I LOVE YOU CENA!" Maybe he'll grow out of it in a few years; maybe he won't. John Cena can't hear him anyway. But in this moment, it's the realest thing we've heard all night.
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