Wednesday, June 29, 2022

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Extreme Rules in Review: What’s Old is New Again

Extreme Rules, operating in the massive shadow of WrestleMania, is destined to feel like a filler Pay-Per-View. Though, maybe “transitional” is a better word. It’s more fitting, at least in the context of the Divas division.

We’re still rebounding from the loss of AJ Lee, have lost Paige for the immediate future and have the remaining top three Divas transitioning from heel to face and vice-versa. Everything’s in flux.

That could result in lazy storytelling and forgettable transitional moments, if the creative team is feeling particularly uncreative. For the Divas, that would be expected. Hell, I expected it. When Naomi vs. Nikki Bella was announced on Monday (on WWE.com, no less), it all felt perfunctory.

The match itself, though, surprised me. Instead of spinning their wheels, the Divas were propelling themselves forward, forging new territory. What we saw wasn’t groundbreaking per-se, but gave us a sense of the new landscape of the Divas division. After months of same-old, same-old, this felt fresh. It made me excited for what’s to come.

Okay, enough grandstanding. Let’s watch the match:

The Bellas are out first, Brie sporting what I’m sure will be new WWE Shop merch in the near future. There’s definitely a new, babyface-ish pep to their step. It’s crazy how the tables have turned so suddenly…

Naomi’s out next with….NEW MUSIC! (*crowd screams*) She’s also got new gear, a ring coat, some wildly impractical sunglasses and a ton of new swagger. It’s refreshing, but also feels half-baked, like a character you’d see in a leaked NXT promo class video. I’m sure it’ll all be refined soon enough, so there’s no point in critiquing it too much. I do like the light up shoes, though! Very inventive. I really have no opinion on the music yet – I’m sure the song will grow on me, though frankly, anything’s better than her using “Funk is on a Roll” at this point.

The bell sounds, and Naomi and Nikki tie up, Naomi backing Nikki into the ropes. Naomi backs off at the referee’s insistence, but can’t resist pie-facing Nikki as she does so. Nikki comes charging back, taking Naomi off her feet before hitting her with a leaping snapmare.

Nikki takes Naomi’s left arm and wrenches it, putting some punishment on it before attempting an armbar. Naomi fights it, clasping her hands together. Naomi manages to get Nikki to break the hold by nabbing a rope break with one of her feet. She slips out onto the ring apron, clocking Nikki through the ropes and slamming her to the mat by her hair. She reenters the ring and lays some boots into Nikki before hitting her with a snap suplex. She goes for an early pin, but Nikki kicks out.

Naomi doesn’t give Nikki any sort of a breather, immediately latching on a headlock. Nikki fights out pretty quickly, but any momentum she hopes to build up is thwarted by Naomi, who quickly takes her down. Naomi goes for another pin, this time in her newly cocky sit-out style, but Nikki again kicks out.

Naomi locks in another headlock, and when Nikki again gets to her feet, she maintains control with a kick to the stomach and body slam. She plants an elbow on Nikki and covers her again, Nikki kicking out after the one count. Naomi captures Nikki in a front facelock, but it’s not long before Nikki’s free and surprising Naomi with a sudden roll-up pin. Naomi kicks out.

Nikki is determined to keep control, latching on a side headlock. Naomi shoves her off, though, and grabs a fistful of hair before she can get too far. She charges into the corner, Nikki in tow, and slams her face into the middle turnbuckle while landing pretty gracefully on top of the second rope. Love this move! Athleticism, inventiveness, believability. It checks all the boxes for a great Naomi move.

Naomi tries for the pin again, but it’s still not enough, and Nikki kicks out. She sends Nikki into the ropes and tries for the Rear View, but gets nothing but air when Nikki hangs on to the ropes. Nikki then comes charging into the corner and slams Naomi’s face into the top turnbuckle, blocking Naomi’s ensuing attack and tossing her feet over the top ropes. However (and you know what’s coming here), Naomi rebounds with a kick to the side of the head. She celebrates a bit before scoring another near fall.

Naomi punches Nikki in the head a bit, kicking Nikki out of the ring. When Brie goes to help her sister, Naomi exits the ring as well and sends Brie flying with a kick. She tosses Nikki back into the ring and follows, but soon finds herself on the receiving end of an offensive streak by Nikki, being sent flying with double boots, two clotheslines and a dropkick. Propped up in the corner, Naomi is sandwiched by Nikki and then planted with an Alabama Slam. Nikki goes for the pin, but Naomi narrowly kicks out.

When both Divas are on their feet, Nikki goes for her devastating forearm attack, but Naomi ducks it, slamming Nikki to the mat back-first. She covers Nikki for another pin attempt, but the champ powers out. Naomi starts getting frustrated, but attempts a split-legged moonsault, getting nothing but mat when Nikki rolls out of the way. Nikki springs into action, slamming Naomi face-first into her knee and going for an immediate pin, earning a two-count.

Nikki still sees the end in sight and hoists Naomi up for the Rack Attack. Naomi manages to wriggle out of it, though, and slams Nikki down on her tailbone in a sitout maneuver, rolling her into yet another cocky pin. Nikki kicks out at two.

Naomi slams Nikki’s face into the corner, but any further attacks are halted by an elbow to the face. Nikki then takes to the second rope, springing off with an enziguri. She covers Naomi again, earning another near fall. When she tries to drag Naomi to the middle of the ring, Naomi fights it, grabbing on to the bottom rope and hanging on for dear life. She manages to hold on long enough for the referee to force Nikki to back off, but that comes back to bite her when, while the ref’s back is turned, Brie nails her with a kick to the face.

Naomi stumbles to her feet, and Nikki takes advantage of her whooziness, immediately setting her up for the Rack Attack. Nikki nails it, pins Naomi for the three count and retains the title!

Elsewhere on the card, Natalya and Lana tasted defeat in their managerial roles. Natalya could only watch as Tyson Kidd and Cesaro lost the Tag Team Titles to Big E and Kofi Kingston of New Day:

Lana, meanwhile, witnessed Rusev suffer another defeat at the hands of John Cena, this time in a Chain match. Rusev even banished Lana from ringside when a “We Want Lana” chant broke out:

Afterwards, Lana is berated by Rusev backstage:

She heads into the office of The Authority, who eventually book Cena vs. Rusev III for Payback. Yay?

Thoughts: I’m pretty sure what I liked most about the Divas Title match was that it was a fresh combination. That in itself doesn’t make the story a winner (see Paige’s string of challengers last summer), but its helped by the fact that both Divas are in the middle of being reinvented. Everything feels new (or at least new-ish). The match itself was a lot smoother than you’d expect, given their rocky encounters as of late.

Naomi’s moveset is gradually changing, keeping its essence but being utilized in a way that doesn’t contradict her new character. It’s funny how so many of her moves can translate if she just celebrates all cocky afterwards. I’m still rooting for the death of the Rear View, though. By the way, who knew Naomi could be such a good heel? Sure, we’ve only seen her as a face, but I thought she was one of those Divas destined to be a face forever – her moveset and energy just didn’t seem to lend themselves to heelishness.

It’s weird how easily Nikki’s moveset made the transition to babyface too. I guess it’s all in the execution? For instance, Nikki’s knee-to-the-face can be a lesiurely, cocky move when done as a heel, but as a face it’s a momentum-shifter, a quick move that can turn the tide out of nowhere.

The lack of fundamental changes could be chalked up to a lack of investment in the details, but I don’t think a Diva’s whole repoertoire needs to change to suit a new character. She just needs to execute the moves in a new way to elicit a different reaction from the audience. Both Divas acheived that in spades here. It doesn’t feel like their heel/face labels were just switched for covenience – despite their suddenness, the turns make sense. I buy them.

Even Brie’s interference has become face-ish, a kick to the head being much more heroic than hairpsray to the eyes. Sure, it’s still cheating, but that’s a Bella staple, heel or face. I still maintain my belief that the Bellas are at their best as heels, but I’m all for a fresh take at this point.

I’m not at all surprised that Naomi lost this match, but I really hope she gets a rematch at Payback. We’ve only scratched the surface of what Naomi and Nikki can do together, and with her reinvention, it seems only fair that Naomi should get more than a few weeks in the spotlight. If Extreme Rules was the transition, let Payback be when she hits her stride.

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