WWE gets a lot of criticism for its creative decisions from fans and pundits (myself included), and the opprobrium is often warranted. But everyone should be lauding the powers that be in WWE for their booking of the two major storylines on the "Elimination Chamber" pay-per-view Feb. 25 and on "Raw" the next night.
WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon was certainly aware that a large segment of the fan base wouldn't be happy about Roman Reigns winning the men's Elimination Chamber Match and going on to headline WrestleMania against Universal Champion Brock Lesnar. McMahon also had to hear the mixed reaction that former UFC star Ronda Rousey had been getting since signing with WWE in January. By the time "Raw" was over, however, I got the sense that the fans' anger and/or apathy on both fronts was dissipating.
Reigns versus Lesnar taking place at WrestleMania April 8 has been considered a foregone conclusion for some time, so Reigns winning the Elimination Chamber Match -- thus earning the title shot with Lesnar at WWE's marquee event -- was predictable, but the match was laid out brilliantly.
Yes, Reigns prevailed, but in an effort to make that result more palatable to the anti-Reigns contingent, the star of the match was crowd favorite Braun Strowman. It's not hyperbole to say Strowman put on one of the most dominant performances in WWE history. He eliminated five of his six opponents in the match -- all of whom are top guys -- and at one point he survived after Reigns, John Cena, Seth Rollins and Finn Balor ganged up on him and nailed him with their finishers.
After Reigns finally eliminated Strowman to win the match, Reigns had no time to bask in his victory, as Strowman attacked him and sent him crashing through one of the Chamber pods. The final image of the pay-per-view was of Strowman standing tall and Reigns not standing. That visual guaranteed the show would end on a high note rather than the crowd booing the victorious Reigns.
It had been promoted that the winner of that match would have a face-to-face confrontation with Lesnar and Paul Heyman on "Raw." The likely scenarios were that the crowd would cheer Lesnar and Heyman and jeer Reigns or, even worse, express its disdain for everyone involved as a means of protesting the WrestleMania main event.
WWE ended up delivering a magnificent swerve: Lesnar and Heyman no-showed.
Reigns, acting as if he was going off script and "shooting" on Lesnar, called attention to the fact that Lesnar comes and goes as he pleases and acts entitled. Reigns talked about how he was born into the business and said Lesnar is just in WWE for the money, while he and everyone else on the roster love what they do and put their bodies on the line for the fans at WWE events all over the world night after night. He said the fans deserved better from Lesnar.
Reigns also pointed out that while he was competing in the Elimination Chamber, Lesnar -- who is rumored to be considering leaving WWE to return to UFC -- was hanging out with UFC president Dana White.
It felt real and was arguably the best promo of Reigns' career. It forced the Reigns haters in the crowd to reassess how they feel about him as compared to Lesnar, and the response to Reigns was not nearly as negative by the end of the promo as it was before he began speaking. Reigns might not be their guy, but at least he loves and respects the business and shows up all the time.
The key now is for Lesnar and Heyman to abandon their "tweener" roles and go full-on heel. They need to make it clear that everything Reigns said about Lesnar is true and the fans should be grateful whenever Lesnar decides to grace them with his presence. This is material that Heyman -- who has no equal on the microphone -- can really sink his teeth into, and it's certainly not a stretch for Lesnar to portray an entitled malcontent.
Remember back at WrestleMania XX in 2004 when the entire crowd booed Lesnar and Goldberg out of the building because everyone knew both of them were leaving WWE? If WWE really pushes the fact that Lesnar could leave WWE for UFC and take the Universal Title with him, maybe the fans will rally behind the guy who is staying.
As for Rousey, the underwhelming responses she had been getting from WWE fans turned around in a big way at "Elimination Chamber" and continued on "Raw," thanks in large part to Stephanie McMahon's heat-generating performances. Stephanie is so good at portraying a despicable heel that fans can't help but root for the babyface -- Rousey, in this case -- who is opposing her.
It's obvious Rousey is still a work in progress as a WWE performer, but having Stephanie as an antagonist will certainly make things easier for her as she transitions from the Octagon to the wrestling ring.
Having Rousey be the anti-Lesnar on "Raw" also helped a great deal in getting the fans behind her, as she was emphatic about not wanting special treatment and being committed to earning her spot. Putting Triple H through a table at "Elimination Chamber" didn't hurt either.
The only issue I had with Rousey's segments was that Kurt Angle was once again made to look like he has no backbone, but I have no doubt that will be rectified, perhaps as soon as next week's "Raw."
It's looking like a mixed tag match pitting Rousey and Angle against Stephanie and Triple H will be happening at WrestleMania, and I'm much more excited about that than I was before "Elimination Chamber."