The most memorable segment of Sunday’s WWE Elimination Chamber pay-per-view wasn’t the women’s Chamber match (which was fantastic) or the men’s Chamber match (which was fun, but predictable). Instead, what everyone is talking about this morning is Ronda Rousey’s WWE contract signing, which started typically but ended in internet-breaking chaos.
When Rousey made her first WWE appearance at January’s Royal Rumble PPV, she took some flack for debuting immediately after the first women’s Rumble match, thereby taking some thunder out of Asuka’s historic victory. Rousey then spent several awkward minutes pointing at the WrestleMania sign, which became a meme for weeks afterwards. It was petty criticism, but there was no mistaking that the Rousey backlash had begun, from fans who thought that her appearance was an overbaked publicity ploy.
Sunday evening’s contract signing segment at WWE Elimination Chamber had to refute this negative conception and accomplish three things:
- To show Rousey could meld well into WWE’s outsized world.
- To show Rousey was taking her professional wrestling career seriously
- To quell the rising backlash and get Rousey over as a babyface (hero)
By accomplishing these things, WWE could get the die-hard fans invested. After WrestleMania and once the shock and novelty wear off, Rousey will need them on her side, assuming that she wants a long WWE career.
WWE planted the seeds for this ‘legitimizing’ narrative on last Monday’s Raw, when they released footage of Ronda Rousey training for her debut. They posted it on social media the same day, and they replayed the footage during Elimination Chamber, directly prior to her contract signing.
It’s a sizzle reel with lots of cuts and close-ups, but it accomplishes its purpose–it shows that Rousey is training explicitly for in-ring performance. It appears that she’s going for a blended style between scripted WWE sports entertainment and legitimate MMA, similar to what Brock Lesnar and Sonya Deville do.
When Rousey finally hit the ring Sunday evening, she had a disarming, sheepish smile on her face, and she received an enthusiastic, though mixed reaction from the crowd. She didn’t have a particularly magnetic stage presence. And things got worse during her first promo. She seemed very nervous–her thoughts meandered a bit as she stumbled over her words, and the crowd’s competing cheers and boos threw her off focus.
She said the right things. She wanted no special treatment, and she loved WWE (we later found out on Raw Talk that she changed in the same locker room with the rest of the women). She paid tribute to her inspiration, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. But her delivery of that message needed polish.
Then things got interesting. Near the end of the contract signing, Raw General Manager Kurt Angle spilled the beans, claiming that Stephanie referred to Rousey as “washed up” backstage. Some context: Rousey had capped her UFC career with two lopsided losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes. And rather than ignoring the elephant in the room, WWE addressed it head-on. It was a perfect WWE storyline twist, leaving enough real-life events in the script so that fans could suspend their disbelief.
Instantly, Rousey’s mood flipped like a switch. She took on a death scowl, and she backed Stephanie against the ropes. Her charisma and star presence, which was absent at the beginning of the segment, was now terrifyingly present.
And then, Rousey put Triple H through a table. Stephanie slapped Rousey across the face. And a red-eyed Rousey fixed her with a glare so hard that Stephanie went scurrying out of the ring. The crowd, now unified, cheered as Rousey signed her WWE contract, threw it on Triple H’s body, and sauntered from the ring.
What can WWE learn from this segment? First, that Rousey, like Lesnar, is a purely physical storyteller. She may one day gain the mic skills to carry a feud, but that is not this day, and those skills will not materialize overnight. She needs to keep her words tightly scripted and to a bare minimum. Either that, or pair her with Paul Heyman–who will then have two ‘legitimate’ fighters under his wing–to do the talking for her.
Second, Rousey needs to stay angry. When she was smiling and laughing during her initial promo, the audience disconnected from her. But that was true in UFC too; Rousey’s enduring appeal was based in her physical dominance, her trash talk, and her killer, take-no-prisoners attitude; oftentimes, she wouldn’t even touch gloves with her opponents before fights. She was, in other words, willing to play the heel. Now that Rousey knows Stephanie is out to get her, fans shouldn’t see Rousey’s happy side again until after WrestleMania. She has a game face that could turn an opponent to stone, and she needs to use it more often.
Third, let Rousey show off more moves in the ring. Fans are excited, and they’re going to tune in to Raw wanting to see more. Give them little teasers, even if they don’t get a full, worked match. Let her do a lariat, chop someone in the corner, or put a Piper-esque sleeper hold on a foe. Keep things nice and simple. By performing basic, but painful-looking moves, she can look dangerous without being exposed as a beginner.
Based on last night’s booking, a Triple H & Stephanie McMahon versus Kurt Angle & Ronda Rousey mixed tag match appears to be in the cards for WrestleMania 34. And last night’s messy contract signing was an excellent start towards building that feud. It’s become intriguing. Now, WWE must make it must-see.