Not just good, but great ‘Balls!’
With the first iteration of WWE’s (heavy sigh) Great Balls of Fire in the books, it seems like the booking staff took the abject stupidity of naming a major pay-per-view after a 53-year-old novelty song purely to make dick jokes as a challenge. Yes, this past Sunday’s wrasslin’ show named after a piano-heavy rock piece by the 50s’ most celebrated cousin fucker was an exceptionally well-built show seemingly in pure spite of its laughably stupid moniker. The event was highlighted by an attempted vehicular homicide and an amazing main event with a relatively weak ending (we can’t have too many nice things, now, can we?), and was a strong, if mostly inconsequential, outing for the red brand.
- Not to beat a dead horse, but it has to be said how out of touch the branding for this event is. Yeah we can make all the dick jokes we want, but that takes for granted how stupid it is to hinge the success of your show on a cultural reference older than even the parents of your primary demographic (WWE is sticking with the PG audience, after all). All of the vignettes have been built around the aesthetic of 50s-style drive-in theaters, something that most people have never seen or experienced, and just feels like what a septuagenarian would think is “always cool,” and a promotions department struggling to make chicken soup out of chicken shit.
- There’s little in the way of character interaction or development in the pre-show, but there is one segment where Dana Brooke is speaking to the panel about the women’s title match andman is she bad on the mic. She starts and stops conversations at a weird tempo, half answers questions that sort of contradict her earlier statements and just has an overall poor command of the verbal side of wrestling. It’s a blessing, then, when Emma comes to pull her away from the commentary booth to have some kind of offscreen conversation. It’s solid continuity to have the Emma/Dana storyline pick up right where it left off when Emma was injured a few months back, or at least I would say that if I had any inclination to believe that the writing team has an idea of what they’re doing with these two women.
- The only match on the pre-show is the Cruiserweight title bout between Neville and Akira Tozawa. Tozawa, out there with a now fully face Titus O’Neil, puts on a competitive match against the King of the Cruiserweights, but the whole thing feels rushed and underdeveloped. These two guys have tons of stamina and could put on a real match if given the opportunity, but what we get instead is a 10-minute tilt that is more than a little unsatisfying. The end comes when Neville manages to gingerly crotch Tozawa in his Great Balls, then score a spin kick to the gut as the Japanese superstar writhes on the ground. Seriously. It’s a weak ending to what was an otherwise pretty good match, and yet (as you can tell from the introduction to this article) it won’t be the last one of those this evening.
- When discussing the breakup of Enzo and Cass, Peter Rosenberg says “When Justin Timberlake left *NSYNC, no one blamed him for abandoning Chris Kirkpatrick.” Renee responds with “Well Enzo Amore and Chris Kirkpatrick are very different performers.” After giving it a little bit of thought, I’m not entirely sure I agree with that assessment, Ms. Young.
Match 1: Bray Wyatt Vs. Seth Rollins
Of all of the matches on this show, this fight had the worst build by far. Not only is it clear that the writers don’t really know what to do with either of these guys, but neither is giving what one might call a “spirited” performance in this feud. Now maybe it’s that Rollins’ work as a face is just super bland and uninteresting, maybe Bray’s poor booking and predilection toward nonsensical rambling have made it hard to care whenever he does anything anymore, maybe both. However you slice it, there was just not a ton of interest going into this match – hence why this first PPV match from two former champions is jerking the curtain on a show that has a feature bout for Enzo freaking Amore.
The match plays out pretty much the way you’d expect. Bray uses his power, Seth is lithe and fast. They both hit their signature offense and tease their finishers multiple times before one of them manages to eke out a victory. I will say, one good thing about Seth being a babyface is that he’s actually a great seller. Bray chucks Seth off the apron and dude dives face first into the steel steps. Later he takes probably the best looking uranage Bray has ever thrown as well as some weird draping chin-breaker move that could be a finisher for a cruiserweight. He makes Bray look like a star.
Not helping Bray look like a star? On two separate occasions he has Seth set up for a Sister Abigail but holds Crossfit Jesus in that awkward hanging position for like 10-20 seconds a piece. Now to be fair, Bray has taken his time with the move since back in his NXT days–it’s just that back then, he set the move up with a corner splash that supposedly knocked his opponent out before attempting Sister Abby. He could do whatever he wanted with them because they were unconscious. Without the setup, anyone for whom the pause doesn’t lead to a reversal looks like a total chump–but that almost never happens, so why they keep making Bray do it is beyond me.
Anyway, they must have made some kind of mistake, because Bray Wyatt actually won. Like, almost clean too. Either dude is going into business for himself, or we’re getting a rematch between these two in some kind of gimmick bout at Summerslam. Ooooh, maybe we’ll get another House of Horrors match! This time they’ll be in some haunted Crossfit gym or something.
Match 2: Enzo Amore Vs. Big Cass
While the Rollins-Bray match was undeniably the worst built bout on the card, the fight between Enzo Amore and his former tag partner Big Cass was arguably the best. After weeks of mysterious attacks that would leave either Enzo or Cass laid out in the backstage area, a silly “whodunnit” segment on Raw would reveal that Cass had been the culprit all along. Blaming Enzo for the duo’s lack of success (which isn’t an untrue assessment), Cass decided to go solo by beating up Zo for being the living embodiment of Scrappy Doo. The following week, Amore cut an amazingly heartfelt promo where he got to flex his (actually pretty good) acting skills, own up to his character flaws, and say that he’s willing to change to save the two men’s real life friendship (they’ve known each other since they were 15). This also earned him a beating from Cass, which inspired Enzo to cut the promo of his life last week. It was passionate, at times funny, and a shade too long (like all of Zo’s promos), but it added some dimension to a performer that was more defined by his haircut than any actual character work. With Amore jumping Cass in the backstage shortly thereafter, the two did a great job of creating some buzz around this match.
The thing about the build, this match, and, in fact, the two performers themselves, is that it’s always a story of halves with the Realest Guys. Enzo is the mouthpiece who can generate heat or excitement with his words alone, whereas Cass is the physical presence who actually does almost all of the work in the actual matches. They were the real life versions of Spike and Chester from the old Looney Toons Cartoons, with the little yappy one continually talking up fights that the bigger bruiser doing most of the work. Seeing these two go at it was a reminder of why that dynamic worked as a team, but highlights the flaws of both performers as individuals. Amore is an elite level talker and promo guy who sucks in the ring, and Cass is…like, really tall? I honestly don’t think his ring work is all that special, but compared to his former partner, he’s friggin’ Frank Gotch. So when they face off it can only go one way.
Of course Cass, complete with a terrible new theme song, steamrolls Enzo in a pretty quick squash match. Zo rag dolls for his buddy a bunch and feebly attempts offense that Cass no sells. At the end Cass gorilla presses Amore to the outside, only for Enzo to climb back into the ring just before he’s counted out. Cass picks him up, hits a big boot and mercifully brings this quick match to an end. This was the right call and the right way to do it, as Amore looks like the resilient and courageous babyface while Cass looks like a cold hearted monster. The question now is what to do with either man, because they’re each half of the performer you need them to be. I mean the first thing to do is re-think Cass’s entrance. It’s a common camera trick to shoot big men from a worm’s eye view in order to emphasize how huge they are, but with the superstar’s name flashing behind him, it means there’s inevitably a point where the performer’s impressive height ends up blocking out the ‘C’ so that he’s walking in front of a big sign that says “Big Ass.”
Match 3: The Hardy Boyz Vs. Sheamus and Cesaro for the Raw Tag Team Championship in a 30-Minute Ironman Match
If I’m honest, I really wasn’t looking forward to this match. As I hinted in my review of Extreme Rules, the Hardy Boyz as “Team Xtreme” is just kinda bland. They’re dudes in their 40s still rocking their Hot Topic shirts and JNCO jeans, and after two decades of wrestling a high-impact style, they just can’t move like they used to. The Broken gimmick helped to hide those physical shortcomings with character work, but putting them back in their babyface 90s gimmick just leaves them devoid of any real personality. Combine that with the fact that they’ve faced Shesaro like a million times since returning at WrestleMania, and the thought of seeing them go at it in a 30-minute Ironman match just sounds like a drag. It very well could have been, but I’ll be damned if these two teams didn’t put on a great 30-minutes of professional wrestling.
The match starts with a classic heel move as Cesaro distracts Matt, Sheamus hits the Brogue kick and the Hardyz lose their first fall in the opening 20 seconds of the match. In fact, all of the falls that Shesaro win over the course of the match are the result of great tag team work from the European bruisers. Fall two comes from after about nine minutes of beating the crap out of Jeff Hardy, when The Bar hits their assisted White Noise tandem finisher. The Hardyz get on the board soon after by hitting Cesaro with a Whisper in the Wind into a Side Effect into a Twist of Fate. After Cesaro eats three finishers, he and Sheamus control the next 12 minutes, receiving little offense, and getting their third fall of the match when the Swiss Superman tosses Matt into the barrier to get him counted out. With six minutes left both Matt and Jeff tandem pin Cesaro to set the last five or so minutes in action.
The last five minutes are a flurry of finishers, distractions and reversals, with both teams looking strong and competitive. It’s a really strong couple of minutes, with the Hardyz getting a super close nearfall after Matt hit a (pretty ugly) moonsault on Sheamus. That one was close enough for the crowd to start chanting “ref you suck” for not counting the 3. Matt is able to recover and reverse a superplex attempt into a Twist of Fate from the top rope to even things up. Real sense of urgency from the Hardy at this point too, with the brothers hitting dual diving splashes on Sheamus for another close call. The match gets a bit out of control and people lose track of who the legal men were in the match. This led to Jeff hitting a Swanton Bomb on Sheamus, only for Cesaro (the actual legal man) to run in and roll up Jeff for the final fall of the match. The Bar wins 4-3 in a hell of a match.
Great performances from all four guys. I really like the heel mannerisms that Sheamus and Cesaro have picked up. Sheamus starts the 10 Beats of the Bowdry but abandons it when the crowd starts chanting along–it’s a great subtle dick move to deny the crowd something they like to do. Similarly, Cesaro doing the delete motion after their victory is another beautiful douchebag move. Props to the Hardyz too, as they proved that while they may not be as fast as they once were, they still have stamina for days.
Match 4: Sasha Banks Vs. Alexa Bliss for the Raw Women’s Championship
The Raw women’s division has been in a bit of a slump as late. The writers really only seem to understand how to use one character properly–and that’s the champ, Alexa Bliss. Though her ring work is still coming along, her mic work, facial expressions and booking have all been on point, making her the undeniable star of the show. The problem is that the writers haven’t been great at building challengers for her title. The character assassination of Bayley has been the focal point of the division for the past few months, and for whatever reason, they keep hesitating when it comes to the booking of Nia Jax as a monster contender. As such it felt like they went with Sasha in the challenger spot for GBoF because it was the easiest option. Like Charlotte on Smackdown, Sasha’s a fully formed character, multiple time champion, and great in-ring worker, so she doesn’t need a ton of storyline to get a title shot. Her winning that gauntlet match after Nia had already beat five other women felt like a weak way of getting her there (and damaged Jax more than helped Banks), but here we are.
Banks is a much better performer than Bayley, meaning she’s able to help Bliss to a pretty good match here. Bliss gets in a lot of new submission offense that I don’t remember seeing her do before, and Sasha is selling her ass off. I think I finally pinpointed her reaction style as being like RVD–she full on crumples under Bliss’ offense making Alexa look like a world killer, and she is taking aggressive bumps left and right throughout the match. Alexa does that “double jointed/ broken arm” thing again to sucker in Sasha then deck her. It’s a great spot that gets a good response – except with commentary. Michael Cole gets that annoying “excited child” voice to exclaim “have you ever seen anything like this before?” Yes, Cole. From Alexa. She’s done it a few times now.
The crowd is along for the ride on this one, with dueling chants for both women throughout. It’s actually really endearing to see a crowd get into a women’s match like that. At one point Alexa misses Twisted Bliss only for Sasha to put her in the Bank Statement for a rather long time and the crowd is crazy for this whole segment. After she reaches the ropes, Alexa crawls out of the ring to get intentionally counted out and it actually gets decent heat. After the bell, Sasha and Alexa fight up the ramp and onto the commentary table where Sasha hits a diving meteora on the women’s champ to end on a high note.
This match was much better than anticipated, with both women looking good in it. I get why they did a schmoz finish if they’re going to give Sasha a women’s title rematch at Summerslam (potentially with Nia Jax also in the bout), but I would rather have seen Bliss get some kind of sneaky win here. Still, not bad from Alexa, whose series with Bayley left a lot to be desired.
Match 5: Dean Ambrose Vs. The Miz for the Intercontinental Championship
I, like the rest of the world, am done with this feud. We’ve seen the Miz Vs. Dean Ambrose so many times before that there’s just nothing interesting here anymore. Physically, they just don’t gel in any meaningful ways and their promos feel very one-sided lately, as even Ambrose seems bored with this feud. Bringing in Renee Young and Maryse to try and add layers to the beef wasn’t a bad idea, but with Renee not being an in-ring performer, there’s only so much that could help. So what was different this time around? The Miztourage.
The story of this match is the constant interference of Bo Dallas (looking like Axel Rose on meth) and Curtis Axel (whose suit and spitcurl make him look like a less handsome Sterling Archer). Ambrose goes after both guys at the start of the match, but like some kind of cruel metaphor for his career since the dissolution of The Shield, he just doesn’t manage to do enough to get over…I mean, to keep them down. Both guys chime in at various points in the match, my favorite being when the duo pulled Ambrose through the ropes when he went for his rebound lariat (a move that really needs to be retired). They even factor into the finish, as Ambrose attacks Axel only for Bo to clock him from behind and allow Miz to put Dean in the Skull Crushing Finale.
Hopefully this underwhelming nonsense will be the end of this feud and both men will go on to do better things. Maybe Ambrose can be the first victim of a newly heel Roman Reigns and Miz can face a fresher opponent, like the otherwise aimless Finn Balor. Either way, both guys deserve something fresh and new to do.
Match 6: Braun Strowman Vs. Roman Reigns in an Ambulance Match
While not as good (or one-sided) as their previous bout at Payback, the Ambulance Match between the “Monster Among Men” Braun Strowman and “The Big Dog” Roman Reigns will definitely be their most talked about encounter to date, and not just because of what happened between the bells. The announce team claims this is the culmination of their feud, but given post-match events, I can’t see that being the case.
The entire beginning of this match takes place outside of the ring, and the abominable Strowman is in charge for most of it, beating Roman with the metal stairs several times in the early going. Reigns does manage to get some licks in, but it’s usually when Strowman messes up and gets caught or runs into the ring post (his one weakness). Unsurprisingly, every time Roman gets some offense in the crowd boos. Strowman turns a Superman punch attempt into his power slam and goes for the pin, even though there are no pitfalls in this match. Roman does the same a little later in the match.
On one of his many trips into the ring post, Strowman’s surgically repaired elbow gets hit by a drive-by, which inspires Roman to grab a chair and start whaling away on Braun’s arm. Strowman rolls to the outside only for Roman to chase him with the chair. Reigns goes for a chair shot on the other side, but Braun no sells it. Another shot, another no-sell. This time, Braun yells “Hit me you son of a bitch!” This time he catches the chair and starts beating on Roman again, flinging him all around the entrance ramp and making their way up toward gorilla position..
He flings Reigns into the stage screen, which they need to stop doing. It’s not fixed to the ground and the fact that it sways every time someone hits it makes it obvious that it doesn’t hurt all that much – at least compared to hitting the ground or a solid wall. They repeat the “throw Roman into the ambulance” spot from Raw, which is another bump that doesn’t look as devastating as they want us to think it does. Braun opens the ambulance doors and drags Roman to the back, but Reigns starts hitting Braun with the ambulance door. After some back and forth near the ambulance, Strowman throws Reigns back on to the stage for some reason. They brawl a bit then Reigns tosses Braun through the stage screen, taking a few panels of the LED wall with him as he does. Solid acting from both men as Braun starts to stir and Roman looks flabbergasted as to how he can defeat this guy. They brawl back toward the back of the ambulance, and Reigns hits Strowman with a stage light to put the giant hillbilly powerlifter right in front of the ambulance doors. Roman goes to spear Braun into the back, only for Strowman to side step and send Reigns barrelling into the bed of the ambulance. Braun then casually closes the door and wins the match.
Now as a standalone match, this would’ve been fine. Suitably violent, both guys look strong, the heel wins off the one mistake the over-zealous face makes and there you have it. Of course, with a non-impact finish to the match you know that Roman’s going to have something to say about it all.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
Sure enough, a pissed off Reigns bursts out of the ambulance and spears Braun, then slams dude’s shoulder in the door a few times before throwing him in the back and shutting the door. Reigns gets in the driver’s seat and takes off with the truck. They then cut to a pre-taped scene (there are multiple camera angles, who would think this was live?) where Reigns reverses the ambulance into a nearby trailer and folds the back up like a smashed beer can. If there were actually someone in there, no doubt, this would have been a vehicular homicide.
An incredulous Kurt Angle emerges with a silly looking “shocked” face, as Roman emerges from the cab of the ambulance. Now what does Roman Reigns, uber face and hero to children around the word, do when faced with the grim ramifications of his actions? Dude flees the scene. That’s right, he runs. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – his cousin Rikishi did run down Stone Cold Steve Austin in the parking lot back at Survivor Series 1999. Knowing WWE there’s a chance that this is some sort of horrible Samoan stereotype that I’ve never encountered, but what it definitely isn’t is the move of a hero.
They make a quick nothing match between Curt Hawkins and Heath Slater to try and keep the live audience entertained, I guess? It’s hard to say what the goal was here, as they still show all the EMTs trying to Jaws of Life Braun out of the ambulance wreckage on the Titantron, meaning everyone’s watching that instead of the actual wrestling happening in front of them. Worse still for the two men out there entertaining the audience – who strolled out to the ring still taping up their wrists and putting on their boots to really sell the whole last minute angle is that within moments, the crowd is chanting “We want Balor.” The match doesn’t even air on the network, we just hear the ring announcement when Slater wins.
Eventually the EMTs are able to get the door open and try to put him on a stretcher but Braun is screaming no. A bleeding Strowman pushes the stretcher away, moaning like a wounded bear as he pushes back the medical personnel and struggles to get to his feet.. He starts crawling through the parking lot, propping himself up against a bus and standing on his own two feet before walking off camera saying “leave me alone.” Bad. Ass. I don’t see how you can continue to think of Braun as a heel after this. Dude not only won his match, he incurred a heinous post-victory attack and walked away on his own two feet. Contrast that with Roman, however, who got so mad about losing a match (fair-and-square might I add) that he literally attempted to murder his opponent. If WWE doesn’t treat this as a double turn for these guys then what the hell are they doing here?
Main Event: Samoa Joe Vs. Brock Lesnar for the Universal Title
Earlier in this piece I said that the Bran Vs. Hodor match that was Enzo/Cass was arguably the best built bout on the card. The only reason that it’s a debate is the masterclass in building a monster-v-monster match that Samoa Joe has been carrying for the past several weeks. For the past five years, Brock Lesnar has been booked like an unbeatable beast, a legit shoot fighter in a land of pretenders. His recent stumbles against Goldberg aside, the dude has looked like an NFL linebacker playing a high school team. Do I need a nerdier analogy? He’s looked like Wolverine fighting the Hand. The Hand may get some licks in, but after seeing Wolvie slice up like 30 ninjas effortlessly, the power/skill disparity is laid clear. Joe choking out Lesnar’s handler Paul Heyman, brawling on an even keel with the beast and then summarily choking out Brock himself put him on a whole other level. Suddenly it was Wolverine Vs. Sabertooth. We always knew Wolverine was going to win, but Sabertooth is a fierce competitor that should make for a compelling fight.
And that’s exactly what we got…for about 98% of the match. Now, I’ll go through the match in earnest, but let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Though you couldn’t describe the match as a squash by any stretch, calling the end of this match underwhelming is only scratching the surface. After a tightly contested and violent confrontation that saw both men get in good shots (though Joe was certainly the aggressor), Joe has Lesnar turning purple in the Coquina Clutch only to then stand up and hit a single F5 to win the match. Yes, Joe had taken six German suplexes and several intense looking knee shots and shoulder thrusts, but having one of your badass Samoans absorb three or four F5s only for your other badass Samoan to go down to one paints an unflattering picture. Joe looked like a competitive and legit threat to the nigh-invulnerable Lesnar, and I don’t think the ending necessarily erases that, but if they would have just given the match 5 more minutes and let him kick out of this one finisher (or even if he rolled out of the ring to avoid the pin), no one would have questioned the result.
As for the match itself, like Brock Vs. Goldberg at WrestleMania, this is a fast-paced and action-packed match. Before the bell, Joe jumps Brock from behind and uranages him through the German announce table before climbing back into the ring to wait for the bout to start. With the perception of Brock as an unbeatable monster, it’s not a bad idea to have your clever heel jump him to gain the advantage, and–surprisingly–Brock sells it. I mean he looks angry and limps his way into the ring, but that’s selling to Brock. It also elicits a “Joe is gonna kill you” chant from the crowd. As soon as the bell rings, Joe splashes him in the corner, hits his corner enzuigiri, and just lays into Brock with knees and shoulder strikes. They do some proper grappling and suddenly Brock starts throwing what look like shoot knees. After a bit of back and forth, Brock shoots him into the turnbuckle and hits three big German suplexes. As he goes for number four, Joe grabs the ropes and the ref, then low blows Brock while the ref isn’t looking. What I like about this is that it proves Joe has seen a Brock match–he knows dude’s undeniable weakness to dick kicks.
Some more offense from Joe who manages to get Brock in the clutch for a bit, only for Brock to pick him up and side slam him to break the hold. Joe rushes Lesnar into the corner, but the Beast slides between Joe’s legs faster than I’ve ever seen him move and goes back for even more Germans. After three more suplexes he goes for the F5, only for Joe to reverse it into the Clutch. Turning purple, Brock goes down to one knee, only to hulk up and throw Joe on his shoulder for an F5 and the win. The actual match length was only about six minutes, but it never dragged and always had suspense, so except for that quibble with the ending it was a great main event. This looks like a match Brock survived more than he won. I wish it had more time, but I’m reasonably happy with how things turned out. Of course I wish Joe had taken more than one F5, but whatever. He didn’t look like a schmuck out there, so no harm no foul. They even zoom in on Joe’s angry face as they end the PPV, which hints that this feud may not be done yet. Perhaps Joe will find his way into the Main Event at Summerslam after all.
Despite having the worst name of any pay per view in WWE history, Great Balls of Fire turned out to be…well, great. All of the matches delivered on some level, even the boring IC title bout, the ending of the Roman/Strowman match and the main event will definitely have a lot of people talking, and though it was a heel heavy show, the crowd went home happy. There were definitely some shitty calls that may’ve been due to time constraints, but overall, this was definitely an event worth a watch. We’ll see you next time for the company’s next uniquely named event, WWE Eggplant Emoji!