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Monday, November 19, 2018

Ronda Rousey's Survivor Series Performance Was One For The Ages


I've watched the fight between Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair at Survivor Series three times. The match is incredible. To me, it's the WWE Match of the Year, and more importantly, with Charlotte's help (it takes two to tango in wrestling), Survivor Series marked Ronda's true WWE baptism of fire. I believe it's the match that truly made the former UFC Bantamweight Champion a pro-wrestler, but not just any wrestler. Survivor Series proved Ronda Rousey is among the most elite performers in WWE. Not because she won the match, which she only did by disqualification, but because in the grand scheme of things, she failed - but in failure, her character evolved.

In front of a partisan crowd at Staples Center in LA, Rousey, the undefeated RAW Women's Champion, faced Smackdown Live's Charlotte Flair in a match for bragging rights. The crowd was against Ronda, but they weren't necessarily pro-Charlotte as much as they were united in support for the injured Becky Lynch. The Smackdown Women's Champion was supposed to be Ronda's opponent after weeks of incredible hype (much of it innovated by Ronda on social media) but Becky had to bow out of this Super Fight due to injury. They'll face each other down the road (maybe even headline WrestleMania) but Charlotte Flair - another dream match for Ronda - was the best possible substitute. Still, Becky's specter loomed over the match, thanks to the fans at Staples Center who treated Ronda as the villain and Becky's proxy Charlotte as if "The Queen" were "The Man" herself.

It also felt like the storyline at Survivor Series was meant for Becky but was given to Charlotte virtually unchanged. The match seemed designed to present the two Women's Champions as equals but Becky/Charlotte grows desperate in her inability to beat Ronda and resorts to weapons and violence, cementing her as the villain (albeit one the crowd will lustily cheer for). Essentially, this is exactly what happened: Ronda and Charlotte fought a relentless and brutal war of attrition. Ronda bled from the mouth early, seemingly from being driven face-first into the bottom turnbuckle. After promising on Instagram to make Charlotte bleed, it was Ronda who gushed blood for the entire duration. And despite Ronda destroying Alexa Bliss to win the RAW Women's Title at Summerslam, in Charlotte, she faced an opponent who was bigger, arguably stronger, but definitely possessed more big match experience and victories than anyone in the Women's locker room (including Becky). 

The match was mesmerizing, intense, nuanced, yet barbaric in a way nothing else at Survivor Series was, nor has there been anything quite as violent from the WWE Women's division before. Ronda wasn't a destroyer; she was in trouble and fighting from underneath for most of the match. Try as she might, Ronda couldn't overpower Charlotte or make her submit but alternately, Charlotte also couldn't put Ronda away. But still, it was clear Charlotte was punishing Ronda and pushing her to her absolute physical limits, forcing Ronda to dig deep and move beyond them. Finally, Charlotte 'snapped' and annihilated Rousey, breaking a kendo stick over her body with multiple strikes and then savaging Ronda with a steel chair. Even in her real-life losses in the octagon, Ronda has never looked so helpless and vulnerable. She won by DQ, but it was an unhinged Charlotte who stood over the vanquished "Baddest Woman on the Planet". Ronda walked out of the ring under her own power, but the scars, bruises, and welts all over her body, as well as the anguish on her face, told the real story of the night. 

Ronda wasn't carried off on her shield, but she was humiliated in a WWE ring for the first time. Her patina of invincibility was shattered by a beating unlike any she'd ever endured before. Worse, the pro-Becky crowd mocked her, booed her, and chanted "You deserved it!" (She didn't.) And now that she has survived this unique kind of WWE hell, Ronda Rousey really gets interesting.

For WWE, Ronda Rousey is a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition who, in less than a year, has paid off beyond their wildest dreams. Her peers Kurt Angle came from the Olympics, Ken Shamrock came from MMA, Brock Lesnar came from amateur wrestling (and jumped to UFC), and The Rock is a third generation star. All of them brilliantly picked up the professional wrestling business like Ronda has, but none of them (except maybe Angle) walked into WWE with the baggage of being one of the most famous athletes in the world like Ronda. Any doubts that Rousey could hang in WWE were dispelled by her wildly entertaining performance at WrestleMania against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. But in her singles career - one that would bring her the RAW Women's Title and the position of leadership of the women's division sooner than many fans would have liked - Ronda was good on her word: she promised she wouldn't just be a 'special attraction'. She promised she would be on RAW weekly and work the house show tours like everyone else - and she has. She's not cashing in on a multi-million-dollar contract and trading on her fame; she is a full-time member of the roster who is serious about her WWE career. Survivor Series proved once and for all how serious Ronda is.

Ronda is also a fascinating wrestler who is unlike anyone else in WWE. Her reputation as "The Baddest Woman on the Planet" always precedes her and her aura is that she's invincible, but she is still undeniably new at pro wrestling. However, she has taken to WWE like a duck to water. It's not merely that she can execute moves like spinning Samoan drops and hurricaranas; Ronda gets the little things, the in-between things that make a match captivating and fun to watch. Nobody 'sells' like her; it's always amazing to see when she's hurt and vulnerable during a match, and her talent for this made her Survivor Series match off-the-charts suspenseful. As proficient as Rousey is already (and remember - she's a rookie with only a few dozen matches and a handful of PPV matches performed at the highest level), the fact that she still feels raw and unpolished only makes her more compelling as a performer. Everything she does feels genuine, and she brings enrapturing emotion in spades. 

Which makes what happened at Survivor Series all the more remarkable: Ronda still hasn't been beaten and the way the story with Charlotte went, in a purely physical contest, maybe Ronda can't be beaten (yet?). But her newness to WWE and the impression that Ronda always expects a fair match lets heels like Charlotte use the WWE system of anything goes against her. It's still novel and mind-blowing to see Ronda Rousey get absolutely destroyed with pro-wrestling staples like steel chairs and kendo sticks. And please shut your traps about the whole 'pro-wrestling isn't real' garbage; the blood and bruises all over Ronda's body after Survivor Series tell the real story about how real WWE can get. Meanwhile, she may still be a rookie but Ronda is quickly making up for lost time - that thrashing she took at Survivor Series packed a ten-year career of pro-wrestling beatdowns into one match.

What happens next will be the real story for Ronda Rousey that demands watching. She's still the RAW Women's Champion but she's tasted failure and has been embarrassed on a global stage. She has a brand new arch enemy in Charlotte Flair, but she still needs to have her showdown with Becky Lynch (where the fans will again treat her as the villain), and she has the dangerous obstacle of Nia Jax (the first woman in WWE to physically manhandle her) coming for her RAW Women's Title. But her failure at Survivor Series is key - someone who can't be beaten isn't interesting. That's what makes WWE fascinating, everyone from The Undertaker to The Rock to Stone Cold Steve Austin to Ric Flair to Shawn Michaels to Brock Lesnar to Triple H to John Cena fails. All of them have suffered devastating losses in their careers that only made their rising up in triumph more meaningful. Ronda Rousey joins that elite list; she lost one war but there will inevitably another war to fight. What this means is, she's a pro-wrestler.

Most importantly, at Survivor Series, we saw Ronda's heart, her commitment to delivering above and beyond even the high level expected of her, and what kind of a performer she really is and is capable of being. It's evident Ronda Rousey isn't in WWE merely for money or for fame (she could continue acting in Hollywood blockbusters for more money and none of the danger); she is putting her body on the line in WWE because she must really love this business, just as the fans do. Her ordeal at Survivor Series only added new dimensions to Ronda Rousey's legend. The "Baddest Woman on the Planet" walked out of Survivor Series with a technical win and a moral defeat, but in the grand scheme of WWE, Ronda Rousey has absolutely proven beyond a shadow of a doubt she's best for business.