In 1976, Rocky captivated America and ultimately won the Academy Award for Best Picture. For the uninitiated, the film tells the story of a Rocky Balboa, a hard-luck semi-professional boxer who, by sheer circumstance, winds up getting a title bout against the world heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali-proxy Apollo Creed.
At the film’s climax, the overconfident champion underestimates his challenger’s heart and skill to such a degree that he almost loses the fight. Balboa and Creed pound each other for a blistering 15 rounds, breaking one another’s bones and taking each other to the brink of complete physical ruin. In the end, both fighters are so utterly exhausted that they swear to one another that they don’t want a rematch (not so, says the sequel), and Apollo keeps his title in a debatable 8-7, 7-8, 9-6 split decision. (And, no, the film didn’t end with Carl Weathers telling the crowd to f-off and storming out ala Al Iaquinta.)
Why bring up a nearly 40-year-old movie widely regarded as one of the best sports films ever made? Because it proves the point that sometimes the best story is the one that ends with Goliath slaying David. This same logic also applies to two segments from this past Monday's Raw. Granted, comparing WWE’s storytelling to an Academy Award-nominated screenplay might be a huge reach, but bear with me.
This past Monday, multitudes took to Twitter in order to loudly proclaim their utter dissatisfaction with the result of a match between newly-minted WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins and Adrian Neville, fresh off of his callup from NXT. Neville lost after a distraction from J&J Security led to a Curb Stomp, and the perception among many was that they had just witnessed the burial of a rising star.
From what one might gather from an exasperated segment of the fan base, what happened to Neville on Monday was not just a burial, but it was a #burial. In their eyes, putting Neville in the loss column a mere week after his becaped debut makes him look weak and insignificant, and it spells certain doom for the future of all of the other stars in NXT.
In reality, Neville and Rollins had a competitive, compelling, and fun TV match. The crowd was into it—they were chanting for Neville and NXT, and they booed the heel soundly when he won in a less than scrupulous manner. The ending saw the undeserving heel champion fending off the strong advance of an underdog that he clearly took a bit too lightly and getting the cheap (but not too cheap) win with his finisher off of a distraction—a pretty basic story, told to pretty good effect.
This match did exactly what it set it out to do: it made Rollins look like a credible performer who is overly reliant on the help of his security team to beat worthy opponents, and it established Neville as a guy who can hang with the WWE World Heavyweight Champion for an 11-minute match. Nothing about this formula screams burial, and Neville is in no danger of becoming the new Wade Barrett.
Was this match Creed/Balboa? No. Was it even John Cena’s debut against Kurt Angle? Not quite. But it served the same basic narrative function: plucky upstart gets into ring with established star at the peak of their game, puts up more of a fight than the veteran may have bargained for, and comes up just a bit short of that star-making win. For as much as this was not Chuck Wepner being beaten almost literally into a pulp by Muhammad Ali, this was far closer to that than it was to a burial.
Though it’s a different shade of story, this same degree of kvetching is already building around the John Cena U.S. Open. Based on the pattern put forth in the first two Raws in the era of Cena, U.S. Champion, the formula will be as follows: Cena—who is for all intents and purposes a humble Apollo Creed—issues an open challenge to anyone in the locker room. Said challenge is accepted by a midcard guy who is not involved in any pertinent ongoing angles—your ersatz Rocky. Cena and midcard guy have a good match that ends with Cena victorious. This formula provides commonly-underutilized performers with a significant spotlight on the WWE’s flagship show and makes them look like legitimate competitors while simultaneously building the repute of the U.S. Championship.
People were unhappy, however, when Cena beat Dean Ambrose last Monday in what was a very, very good match. But those who inexplicably called it a burial of Ambrose were simply viewing it through the wrong lens. The story of that match was not Cena beating Ambrose—if they wanted to do that, things would have gone much, much quicker. The story was that Ambrose—a guy the company has worked so diligently to kill since The Shield broke up two years ago—almost beat a 15-time world champion. On Monday, Neville wasn’t jobbed out in three minutes to a Curb Stomp; he almost beat the current WWE Champion, who needed help from his cronies to beat a rookie that he didn’t think would be a challenge whatsoever. There’s a big difference in the portrayal.
One good match with Cena will not salvage the directionless Ambrose, just like this past Monday’s match will likely not revamp Cody Rhodes. These two performers need, among other things, the full support of creative and weeks of proper utilization to be fully rehabbed. Still, one thing is clear: they both came out of their respective losses to Cena looking much, much better than they did going in. Sometimes, there is victory to be had in defeat.
Similarly, Neville will not be killed by one not particularly clean loss to the man who just walked out of Wrestlemania with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The match with Rollins was by no means a star-making performance, but it wasn’t a star-killer either, and he comes out of it looking like he can hang with a guy at the top of the card just fine. You can make the argument that the loss comes too close to his debut—that’s certainly valid and debatable—but you cannot call it a burial by any stretch.
Here are the brass tacks: Cena will (almost) always come out on top during the open challenge storyline. Come to terms with this fact right now. It will make it much easier to accept that he is involved in one of the best parts of the show, and that he’s doing more to put over a midcard title and midcard talent than the past year of angles and booking. It will also help you appreciate the larger picture—if Cena defends his title in good matches against all manner of challengers and is never toppled, it will make it a big deal when he is finally defeated. Maybe he eventually loses it to a future star; perhaps even an underdog like Neville.
More brass tacks: if Neville is going to be pushed as a top talent, he is eventually going to have to wrestle other top names like Randy Orton, Cena, and, yes, Big Show and Kane. When he does, he will likely lose his fair share of matches. You can expect the same fate for guys like Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, and Sami Zayn. They will all lose matches to established guys; how they lose those matches will be the key.
Not all wins and losses are created equal. If Neville goes toe-to-toe with Rollins and loses to heelish tactics, it’s reasonable to assert that he’s in the same spot than he would be in by beating Curtis Axel yet again. As for the rumors of Neville’s untimely demise? On the same show in which Neville took the loss against Rollins, The Miz won a five-minute nothing match against Damian Sandow with a roll-up.
One of the two is going to be more over with fans at next week’s Raw. Here’s a hint: it’s not the guy who main evented a Wrestlemania.