WWE kicks off ‘New Era’ with a bang

Sasha Banks realized a childhood dream when she captured the WWE women’s title Monday night on Raw.

We’ve all heard the hype before. WWE promises a new show, a new network. a new beginning, a new era.

The company even instituted its second brand extension and moved Smackdown to a live slot on Tuesday nights.

In most cases, all the hoopla and ballyhoo have been just that.

But then there was last week.

What was billed as the “New Era” in the wake of WWE’s recent roster shake-up showed early signs that it might be the real deal. On consecutive nights, both Raw and Smackdown provided glimpses of the company’s most promising direction since the Attitude Era, WWE’s hottest period in history when ratings reached all-time highs and mega-stars sat atop the roster. And while it’s far too early to draw comparisons, the overall viewing public gave the new-look shows a major thumbs up.

Monday night’s three-hour Raw from Pittsburgh, with an introduction from brand commissioner Stephanie McMahon and general manager Mick Foley, knocked the proverbial ball out of the ballpark. The show had the feel of something new, fresh and exciting. Actual wrestling took precedence over the too-often mindless banter and promo-driven segments that dominate much of the programming.

Old stars and new stars, especially those from NXT, helped inject emotion and energy. There were surprises and memorable star-making performances. And the result seems to be that WWE might actually be listening to its fans.

Charlotte and Sasha Banks have helped take the former divas division to an entirely different level, and they put that on display in an athletic, emotional match that saw the WWE women’s title change hands.

A new star was born when Finn Balor, one of the most talented wrestlers on the planet, made his official Raw debut in spectacular fashion. Balor pinned U.S. champion Rusev in a four-way match and ended the night with a stunning win over former WWE champ Roman Reigns to earn a match against Seth Rollins at Summer Slam for the newly created WWE Universal championship.

Balor, in particular, has the talent and charisma to become one of the major stars in WWE. A 16-year veteran who is regarded as one of the most exciting performers in the business today, Balor worked the majority of his first six years as a pro in England and his native Ireland, then the next eight years in Japan. For the past two years, he’s been wowing crowds in NXT. There’s no reason he can’t be just as big a name in WWE.

Charlotte has continued to show that she really is a chip off the old block who can carry a very talented women’s division, but crowd favorite Banks got her long-awaited win over her former NXT adversary and partner in a match that didn’t disappoint.

“This is the era of women’s wrestling,” Banks declared after the win, “and I promise you, every single week, every time I step in this ring, I’m gonna show everyone why I’m champion.”

Although the title change was originally booked for Summer Slam, the decision to switch one of the company’s major championships on Raw gave the show a big moment.

Fans, including many who had become jaded over the current product, gushed following Monday night’s Raw. Many liked the fact that there was actually more wrestling than talking.

“I enjoyed it. I actually kept it on USA (Network) for the entire three hours,” enthused longtime fan Chris Wilkinson of Charleston.

“Charlotte and Sasha tore a notoriously wrestling-blase house down. Glad my home city’s fans stirred, realized the Penguins’ season ended very well, shifted gears, and gave it up to the stars tonight,” critiqued veteran follower Ken Mihalik of Charleston.

Joe Dobrowski of Washington, D.C., went so far as to call Raw a bellwether-defining show.

“Some courage and guts from the creative powers in the company,” he noted.

While it would be unfair to compare the following night’s Smackdown to the exceptional edition of Raw, the show did have its strong points. There were no coming-out parties on par with those of former NXT stars Banks and Balor, but the show ended with a great feel-good moment when perennial underdog Dolph Ziggler won a Six-Pack Challenge to set up an all-Ohio battle with Dean Ambrose for the WWE championship at Summer Slam. For the many fans of the undervalued Ziggler, it could be the beginning of a memorable redemption story.

As GM Daniel Bryan said at the onset of Smackdown, opportunities would be given to performers who had been held back, and that certainly was the case with Ziggler and others who may finally be getting a chance to prove themselves.

There were noticeable tweaks to both shows. Some were subtle and others were striking.

Fresh faces were mixed in with established names, the usual authority figures weren’t overbearing and the pacing was a refreshing change.

Jobbers, once a staple of the business but a rare commodity in the modern era, surprisingly got in their obligatory brief ring time. The enhancement talent did exactly what their predecessors excelled in, and that was making their bigger-name opponents appear dominant. Even undrafted veteran standby Heath Slater, whose WWE status is only a notch above jobber, provided a noteworthy Smackdown moment when he was gored by returning “free agent” Rhyno.

For a company to survive and prosper, new stars have to be created, and WWE finally seems to be on the right track. In hindsight, though, it has never really been a matter of talent; it was more a case of the company continuing to push the same stars at the expense of newer talent who should have been elevated to the next level. With NXT catching fire as a bona fide third brand and boasting a strong crossover audience, the development of new stars and the pipeline to the main roster should ensure that WWE remains strong for the foreseeable future.

And while Smackdown failed to hit the lofty heights that Raw reached the night before, it was a marked improvement from previous shows, with its live presentation giving it an added air of spontaneity and a true feeling of appointment TV. This week’s scheduled debut of the highly popular American Alpha combo and the impending return of former Intercontinental champ and Orangeburg native Shelton Benjamin will give the show that much more energy and add to a roster that still lags behind Raw in depth and titles.

Will this new emphasis and direction be short-lived? The jury’s still out, and only time will tell. But if WWE can build on the momentum coming off its first week of the “New Era,” the future looks bright.

Former WWE star Carlito (Carly Colon) will make his first Old School Championship Wrestling appearance on July 31 at the group’s “Summer Heat Wave” event at the Hanahan Rec Center.

The son of WWE Hall of Famer Carlos Colon, Carlito held the U.S. and Intercontinental titles in WWE, along with the WWE and world tag-team titles with brother Primo (Eddie Colon), during his six-year run with the company from 2004-10. Primo and cousin Epico (Orlando Colon), the former Los Matadores, currently appear in WWE as The Shining Stars.

Also featured will be former WWE star Gangrel and NXT’s John Skyler.

Bell time is 5 p.m. Doors open at 4:30.

General admission is $10 (cash); kids 12 and under $5.

For more information, call 843-743-4800 or visit oscwonline.com.

The biggest weekend of the year for longtime Mid-Atlantic wrestling fans will be Aug. 4-7 in Charlotte at the annual Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest.

The event has become an annual tradition for thousands of wrestling fans around the country.

This year’s activities include “Ringside with Jim Ross;” Q and A sessions with Mickie James, Lady Blossom, Austin Idol, Jimmy Garvin, Road Warrior Animal and Magnum T.A.; a “Breakfast of Champions Roast” with Ole Anderson; and the Hall of Heroes dinner and awards banquet. Among this year’s inductees are Jimmy Valiant, Baby Doll, The Road Warriors (Joe Laurinaitis and the late Mike Hegstrand) and manager Paul Ellering, the late Dusty Rhodes and the “Mid-Atlantic Gateway Boys” Dick Bourne and David Chappell. “Hurricane” Shane Helms will host the awards ceremony.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.