Money in the Bank: WWE's Poisoned Chalice or a Ticket to the Top?

Fifteen years ago, the innovative Money in the Bank concept was introduced, creating a seemingly perfect vehicle for any rising’s star ascent. Edge was the match’s first victor, using the briefcase to bridge the greatest gap of all, becoming WWE Champion at last. That moment set the standard but with over twenty winners since, results have naturally become mixed. This Sunday, twelve performers “climb the corporate ladder,” adding a new twist that provides uncertainty to the now established event. However, the end product remains the same and in 2020, how important will that result be?

Though Edge’s triumph remains memorable, it’s far from alone in terms of dramatic and exciting cash-ins. In theory, the briefcase provided Rob Van Dam with a similar route to the main event, setting up his iconic title win over John Cena. Though an enduring moment, Van Dam’s time at the top wouldn’t be nearly as sustained and the 2007 winner fared even worse. Sidelined by a misdiagnosed injury, Mr Kennedy swiftly lost the briefcase to Edge. Once again, ‘The Rated R Superstar’ cashed in successfully, dethroning The Undertaker and sparking a program that’d lead him to the WrestleMania main event.

Teddy Long And The Fist (CGI Version) Return On WWE Throwback SmackDown

That unplanned usage would soon become more prevalent, using the briefcase as a plot device to redirect a top star. That was a safer choice than the alternative, boldly jolting someone forward and hoping that they’ll have the staying power to make it worthwhile. Speaking of such, CM Punk was a quite fascinating case study himself. Winning the briefcase two years in a row, Punk experienced different outcomes once he cashed in. He left as champion both times but in terms of perception, the two title reigns were rather contrasting.

By its very nature, the briefcase is a shortcut to the gold. Though there have been exceptions, it’s generally presented as an opportunistic pathway, an easy road to the title. Inevitably though, that can leave a performer appearing to be more of a pretender than a champion and in Punk’s case, that meant that though the title was around his waist, he felt no grander in stature or importance. The result was a reign that barely elevated Punk, let alone transform his career. In the sequel though, Punk’s alternative path proved much more beneficial.

Using the cash-in to fuel a pivotal heel turn, Punk found the form that’d eventually make him a genuine game-changer. There would be bumps along the way, but that success accelerated Punk’s ascension dramatically, making him almost undeniable in the ardent fans’ view. That lesson was very much learned too, confirming the concept as a tool most valuable to villains. Jack Swagger, Kane, The Miz, Daniel Bryan, Alberto Del Rio and Dolph Ziggler followed. Clearly, a prototype was in place but for a range of reasons, the briefcase was still anything but a sure thing.

Though he fit the bill as a young, developing heel, Swagger proved to be a cautionary tale. Just like Punk before him, Swagger felt as though he needed the belt more than it needed him, quickly returning to his prior position after losing the title. In history, that title reign was just an extra achievement in the announcer’s arsenal when covering Swagger. The same could be said for Ziggler, whose fledgling reign was derailed by an ill-timed injury. Though he’d never return to those heights, Ziggler’s cash-in remains one of the most beloved moments in Money in the Bank history.

On paper, the same could be said for Miz but his title reign ensures otherwise. Though he certainly had his critics, Miz maintained premier standing for years to come, leaning on his versatility to become a consistent feature on WWE TV. Though he hasn’t been world champion since, Miz headlined a WrestleMania and that feat alone makes this far more than just a minor accolade in his past. Elsewhere, Daniel Bryan very much followed in Punk’s footsteps, using the briefcase to turn heel and finally showcasing the character work that in WWE, had gone mostly unseen.

Clearly, the rest is history in Bryan’s case but for different reasons, Alberto Del Rio and Kane fall somewhere in the middle. Del Rio endured as a main event figure in those years but ultimately, became a footnote in the match’s history. As expected, Kane was a safer choice, simply injecting his famed career with new life and allowing for a final world title run. He did make some history though, cashing his briefcase in on the same night he’d won it, a play that’d soon become as familiar as it was initially shocking.

Either way, Money in the Bank was now its own event, featuring two ladder matches each year and providing both brands with briefcase holder. On the same night that Ziggler triumphed, Cena claimed his own contract. Just like Van Dam before him though, Cena opted for a formal match that eventually, resulted in him becoming the first man to unsuccessfully cash-in his briefcase. He wasn’t alone for long either, as Damien Sandow quickly followed suit, suffering the same fate opposite Cena himself. The heel turn had become a natural direction though, next rejuvenating Orton and leading him back to the WrestleMania main event.

With only one world title remaining, the Money in the Bank then returned to its original format as a singular match. Ironically, its next winner was very reminiscent of the first, as Seth Rollins became champion with an unforgettable WrestleMania cash-in. That bridged the gap for Rollins as emphatically as it did for Edge a decade earlier, arriving at the perfect time and placing him firmly in history. After so many cash-ins, some of these moments run together now but it must be said, that one never will. In terms of sheer drama, it’s unlikely to ever be topped.

In theory, the same elevation occurred for Rollins’ Shield brethren Dean Ambrose, with the famed faction book-ending Sheamus’ own Money in the Bank win. Speaking of such, Sheamus cashed in on Roman Reigns, acting as a plot device in ‘The Big Dog’s road to the WWE Title. For Ambrose, it was a shortcut to the spot he’d been vying for, cashing in on night one just like Kane six years prior. That moment was the height of The Shield’s dominance in WWE, with Ambrose making his presence known immediately after a Rollins – Reigns clash.

The following year, Money in the Bank would once again feature two ladder matches but this time, one of those would be for a female contract. In a match that once seemed unfathomable, Carmella would leave with the briefcase, fitting the bill as a heel on the rise. However, her eventual reign was a familiar tale. Though the cash-in itself was enthralling, Carmella’s overall standing didn’t shift much after being dethroned, instead returning to a lesser role even as her performance continues to evolve. In comparison to her male counterpart though, Carmella fared rather well.

Just like Carmella, Baron Corbin seemed like a natural fit but instead, had the rug pulled out from under him, unsuccessfully cashing in on Jinder Mahal. The reasons for that move appear to be varied but it was also a reminder of the realistic limitations the briefcase enforces. If there’s not a natural place for the title reign to take place, it can vanish just as quickly as it arose. A Corbin title win wasn’t on the cards in 2017 and instead, he’d have to rebuild in the months that once appeared set to host his greatest success.

It seems as though something was taken from that year too, with a different approach being taken since. With single-brand PPV’s now a thing of the past, the options were more plentiful but two established players were chosen anyway. In Alexa Bliss, WWE went with a multi-time champion only months removed from her latest reign. Though obviously not as transformative as it could be for others, Bliss was a perfect example of the ‘plot device’ train of thought, becoming an ideal villain for Ronda Rousey to unseat. Just like Kane and Ambrose before her, Bliss also cashed in on night one of her contract.

On the male side, Braun Strowman had been climbing WWE’s ladder for quite some time and now finally appeared in position for championship success. He hadn’t filled that role before but certainly wasn’t elevated by the briefcase either, remaining one of RAW’s major stars. The one advantage it provided wasn’t utilized either, as Strowman squandered the contract and left the 2018 event without much long-term impact at all. That brings us to last year, as the recent trends continued more controversially than ever.

With yet another night one cash-in, Bayley became SmackDown Women’s Champion in a move that one year later, can’t be understated in its importance to her career. Though she’d been champion before, Bayley’s career shifted gears dramatically that night, positioning her for a later reign that remains in existence to this day. Opposite her, Brock Lesnar claimed the male briefcase, seizing upon a battered line-up of talent that’d featured in arguably the most violent Money in the Bank match yet. Though a polarizing choice, the presentation fit Lesnar’s perception perfectly.

Unfortunately, the chance to utilize Lesnar differently wasn’t fully capitalized upon, resulting in a brief title run that merely re-crowned Rollins. This year, the format appears to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen so in that sense, this concept is clearly not stagnant. However, have the consequences reached that point? Has the match’s gravity been damaged by all the immediate cash-ins and short-lived title reigns? In truth, I think that’s a genuine opinion among some fans but overall, one that’s impact is minimal.

On TV, the briefcase is understandably framed as an almost guaranteed road to glory but in reality, it’s far simpler than that. The Money in the Bank is merely an opportunity, a chance to prove you belong. For talents like Shayna Baszler, Lacey Evans, Dana Brooke, Aleister Black and Otis, this is the fastest route to secure a main event position, even if only briefly. The briefcase is just a vehicle for that progression though, a shortcut to the spot in which the real challenge begins.

In the past, this match has provided a foundation for years of success, but it can’t be defining. It’s a starting point, a springboard to the moments that’ll truly shape a career. That’s shown by the prior winners, the examples of how quickly a captivating cash-in can be forgotten. Those instances can’t be blamed on the talent alone, but they serve as a fitting reminder: the briefcase may position them on top but that doesn’t mean they’ll stay there. This remains a matter of ability and clearly, some candidates were more qualified than others.

If a less established figure is indeed granted this opportunity, their long-term success remains reliant on the same ingredients that earned them that honor. The transition remains challenging, there’s just a greater spotlight on the process itself. With that in mind, both of 2017’s winners feature in this weekend’s edition too, as Carmella and Corbin look to improve on their prior effort. While Carmella remains in pursuit of a more sustained stint in the title picture, Corbin appears to be a likelier option, still chasing the reign that slipped through his fingers three years ago.

The truth is though, all of those options come with a certain degree of risk and that’s why a safer choice is always likely. Whether it be AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, Rey Mysterio, Nia Jax or Asuka, WWE has multiple established options, former champions that can reclaim gold with the briefcase as a leading plot point. In terms of impact, those routes may be less intriguing but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile, especially if they spark something more valuable in the long run.

In fear of rendering this whole recap redundant, the Money in the Bank’s results seem to rely more on choice than concept. With the right talent, that briefcase can be an ideal building block but if the wrong man or woman is chosen, it can quickly be made irrelevant. That’s not always a reflection of ability either, sometimes simply being decided by the initial intentions for the talent at hand. Regardless of how rousing the cash-in proves to be, performers will generally wind up where they were always destined to be, for better or worse.

That may not be the most exciting conclusion, but track record suggests it’s a fair one. Not everyone belongs on top of a card and some aren’t ever intended to reach that spot either. The Money in the Bank has provided multiple examples of that throughout its fifteen-year existence and will continue to as well. However, this concept remains effective and if the briefcase lands in the right hands at the right time, it can be almost transformative.

While not full proof, that’s more than enough to make Money in the Bank a quite fascinating piece of the modern WWE puzzle. One that after all these years, remains very much worthwhile.

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