Rhetorical Recap: WWE’s Royal Rumble and the Statistical Significance of Spectacle

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

In a world where statistical information dominates news, politics, sports, and economics, Vince McMahon and the WWE master the art of annual traditions and spectacular “firsts.” Whether it is tweaking the traditional formula of “surprise entrants,” statistical odds of repeat winners, or live telecast prognostications about whether early entrants can go the distance—first to enter, last to leave—the Royal Rumble demonstrates a recipe for possible excitement, although historically this lumbering mega-wrestler-free-for-all doesn’t always sparkle from start to finish.

2018’s 31st annual Royal Rumble has several advantages going for it. The most significant actually occurs outside of the men’s rumble. The WWE is (finally) betting big on the introduction of a Women’s Rumble; a long in the works product that signifies the company’s increasing investment in women’s wrestling (excuse me, sports entertainment). The Women’s Wrestling movement is less in the demographic-skewing vein of Diva filler or blatant female objectification from decades past (think Jello kiddie pools, lingerie strut-offs, poorly-rehearsed squash matches). Here is WWE’s chance to right the ship, or at least, continue a turn toward recognizing the in-ring performative value women wrestlers offer the genre.

Women’s Gender Double Bind

Two significant downsides face the women’s rumble, and their names are Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair. Bliss and Flair are two of the three most electrifying and over women’s talent currently on the roster. While Charlotte represents the “complete package” with in-ring technical skill, increasing fluidity on her mic work, and a knack for brand extension with previous appearances on ESPN as well as a national book tour with her father, Nature Boy Ric Flair, in 2017. Bliss is one of the smaller talents on the roster, but her oratory skills in front of a mic—whether pre-taped or live in front of an audience—is arguably second-to-none company-wide. Bliss’s technical skills grow smoother with each title defense, and her strengths as a cowardice heel make her an audience darling among smart mark fans. But the key strength both Bliss and Charlotte possess lies in their kayfabe charisma. Such magnetic charm is unmatched in WWE and a large reason that the first ever women’s rumble is a bit more deflated than when it was first speculated about.

And not to pile on negativity going on, but WWE has virtually ignored one of its most talented on-air personalities, actual trained journalist Renee Young. Young was the natural shoo-in to announce the Women’s Rumble, and arguably should have been elevated to a stint as co-lead commentator with the RAW or SmackDown announce team. Young is so articulate and able to toggle between thoughtful expressions and kayfabe reactions, the WWE should look back in judgment years from now and regret that they did not give her the chance sooner. And while Talking Smack and RAW Talk were steps in the right direction, there is a bit of tokenism given how quickly the WWE Network pulled the plug on such low-cost programming. To add insult to injury, the company issued an eleventh hour statement that none other than Stephanie McMahon (cue audience groan) will commentate the women’s rumble itself. Unless she’s part of a 3-person team that includes Young and former Women’s Champion Lita, the inaugural women’s rumble could have gone down as yet another opportunity lost in an otherwise “historical” event. Seeing as Ric Flair’s win at the 92’ Rumble is regarded by many as one of if not the best Rumble win, it is a shame the firtst Women’s bout could not creatively include Charlotte. But then again, that might ruin anyone else’s chances of winning.

Previewing the Men’s Rumble Stakes

Recent Rumbles’ emitted a ton of action and several memorable moments. This time around a palpable tension grows in anticipation of a winner, with recent years including strong surges from Chris Jericho, the WWE debut of AJ Styles, and the infamous tease of Daniel Bryan. And yet the 2016 Bryan tease ended with a Philly crowd nearly mobbing the Roman Reigns win. The next year, fans felt chaffed again by the “winner becomes Champion” results: part-timer (part-owner) Triple H took the win and the gold but as an elaborate setup to eventually lose to Reigns (again thrust in the spotlight). 2017’s Rumble held a lot of potential, including the final excellent match between John Cena and AJ Styles, but the Rumble (and crowd) fell absolutely flat with the win by the dozen times over former champion and previous Rumble-winner, Randy Orton. Storyline wise, the decision was so “safe booking” that it felt entirely out of place; as if Orton handed in a “Rumble Winner Golden Ticket” that was part of a restructured contract after his head-bludgeoned loss to Brock Lesnar at the previous SummerSlam main event.

Preshow Filler

Kalisto, Gran Metalik, and Lince Dorado defeat TJB, Jack Gallagher, and Drew Gulak — What can I say, I had to look up a couple of the names on the Internet to make sure I could remember these 205 Live’ers accurately (thank you, Cyberwebs). Similar to Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens during the kickoff show backstage check-ins, I was busy on my computer typing to offer full attention. There was a single excellent spot where the three trained Luchadors performed simultaneous moonsaults off the top turnbuckle onto the floor…from the same turnbuckle. It’s a shame the arena was about ten percent full and even the preshow team didn’t seem to notice a match had taken place afterward. This gets at an increasing issue with WWE mega-events like WrestleMania and SummerSlam: same-day oversaturation.

The Revival defeat Gallows and Anderson – True statement, when this match started, I thought they were replaying a clip from RAW that I’d missed, even though I watched RAW25 from start to finish (on digital delay, of course). Given that recent retrospect and hullabaloo from the Attitude Era, it is amazing WWE was able to juggle such a juggernaut roster of storylines back then, only to retreat into pusillanimous storylines despite the stable of touted Hollywood writers on staff (maybe they hire reality TV writers instead?). I recall like a faint dream a time when The Revival demanded respect through fierce strong style competition in NXT. And again their emergence within the main roster has been trivial at best. But they do pull out a win just after getting embarrassed by the Club/DX RAW25 alliance.

US Championship – Bobby Roode defeats Mojo Rawley

Did anyone think this would go any other way? …Did anyone care?

The Main Card Event:

WWE Championship Handicapped Match – Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens vs. A.J. Styles

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com

The main show opens with the entrance of Sami Zayn. The hot Philly crowd gives Zayn and Kevin Owens robust support. And what smart booking to put this title match at the beginning, feeding the crowd positive vibes could play into WWE’s hands with a historically antagonistic city. (Would Philly be kinder to Roman due to the Eagles making Superbowl LII? Um, probably not.) I’ve personally found Zayn’s snarky heel turn a breath of fresh air and a huge relief for where his character was at on the main roster. The chemistry between he and Owens is palpable as buddies or foes just like the Owens-Jericho pairing in 2016-2017.

AJ Styles gets a raucous welcome as well. The handicap bout starts with a bit of patty-cake tag-ins between Owens and Zayn. In a rare treat, the crowd gives Zayn his due respect with a toggle chant of “A-J-Styles/Za-mi-Zayn!” And unless I’ve missed it somewhere previously, AJ appears to be sporting slick new powder blue and jet black trunks with matching gloves and elbow pads (the baton de los Cena has truly passed down along the merchandizing front). As the match finally gets going, I was reminded just how versatile Owens’ move set is, which is one reason some felt disappointed in the execution of the Style-Owens U.S. Championship feud last summer.

After a series of high-contact moves from both Owens and Zayn, Styles sells winded and blown up with more heroism that Shawn Michaels ever could have. The move sets transition so fast that the commentators sound like rookie broadcasters missing plays and failing to articulate the rules of the game. Styles gives a double elbow consecutively to each man, before Owens quickly flips Styles. AJ then redresses his landing mid-air and catches Sami with a hurricanrana. AJ soon gets Owens into a ruthless calf crusher that has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. But his should be victory is the beginning of a barrage of comebacks that are habitually interrupted by villainous saves from each odd man out. All of these disruptions scream “cheat victory” setting up a co-WWE Champion run. But suddenly an awkward did they/didn’t they tag-in distracts the pair from their mission and Styles gets an exciting roll-up pin, retaining the WWE Championship legacy belt with the New Orleans-esque fleur de leaf-tinted WrestleMania insignia displaying overhead.

Backstage Stinger – After the exit music, a camera cuts immediately to Zayn-Owens screaming at SmackDown General Manager Shane McMahon. They inquire if Shane saw the ref possibly make a mistake on their tag in. His only response: “Yep.” The encounter suggests this feud remains an ongoing storyline in one form or another.

SmackDown Tag Team Championship – Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin vs. The Usos

The tag-teamer gives the crowd a bit of a transitional cool down while allowing the SmackDown announce team to warm up calling consecutive matches. The Usos, mics in hand, offer one of their smoothest heel taunts as they strut down the entrance ramp. The vocal effort actually adds interest to what might normally be a match relegated to the preshow. There is an interesting parallel occurring between Gable and former American Alpha teammate Jason Jordan. Jordan jumped to RAW for a quasi-main event storyline where he was revealed to be Kurt Angle’s long lost son. Gaining the ire of most audiences, WWE smartly allowed his crowd heat to morph into a slowly developing arrogant prince heel run. But back to the parallel—following Dean Ambrose’s unplanned long-term injury, WWE gambled by giving Ambrose’s Tag champ partner Seth Rollins a run with Jordan, just as Gable rises to the A-plot in the SmackDown tag scene.

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com,

The superkicks fly fast and furious by mid-match, and the Usos once again apply clever misdirection on their tag-ins. Eventually this momentum gets the best of Gable and the Usos take the first of the (*sigh*) “Best of 3” bout. On the ring exterior, Benjamin hoists Jimmy Uso up while Gable slams his backside (and head!) onto the ground floor mat. But just as it looks like Gable and Benjamin set up an obvious tying pinfall, Jay Uso sneaks in a fast rollup for the three count. For the second consecutive match, quick rollups deceive the audiences’ temporal conditioning.

And now a word from our spons…selves.

Transitional Docutainment – An interim ad teases the latest WWE 24 documentary series, “Wrestlemania Orlando.” The clip includes a laid-back Roman Reigns (trying to inoculate audiences into submissive mode) while another clip suggests a rare, canny, and out of character Undertaker. WWE also replays a video package that challenges the overused social theory, “numbers don’t lie.” In the performance art of sports entertainment, this package lays on thick several strategic numerical instances in Royal Rumble history (most wins, most eliminations, longest entrant, most time spent in the ring, and so on). Technically, the numbers don’t lie. These things, for all intents and purposes, have happened. But in a world of fake news, alternative facts, and confirmation bias, the WWE shows once again why other professional sports like the NFL, or say, American politics, emulate sports entertainment spectacle.

Forward-Thinking Surprise of the Night: Men’s Rumble Placement

In an astonishing booking decision, WWE announces the Men’s Rumble as the third main card contest of the evening. This is an incredible decision that truly puts WWE’s money where its mouth is by positioning the Women’s Rumble later on the card. Time will tell if Vince actually allows it to supersede part-timer golden boy Brock Lesnar on the card.

The first entrant, Rusev, is announced in operatic fashion by Aiden English, and Philly eats it up. But the moment almost vanishes as Finn Balor comes in at #2. Noticeably, Balor sports a new wardrobe (not including “The Demon” makeup) for the first time ever; a burgundy leather jacket and matching tiny trunks and knee-high boots. The more I assess the burnt red shade, another Philly-friendly performer of similarly tinted trunks comes to mind: Daniel Bryan. Rhyno comes in third to provide some “big man” filler that will keep both fan-favorites eligible for now. The crowd thanks Rhyno with an intense “E-C-W!” chant. Rhyno shows his massive body still has gas in the tank. Baron Corbin runs in as entrant #4, and I am feeling my own brotherly love with Philly fans, as they boo his (uninspiring) presence. Predictably, WWE lets Corbin immediately eliminate Rhyno but then in a bit of fan service, Balor takes out the “Lone Wolf.”
However, this starts a coy bit of WWE booking against the Philly crowd as Corbin possibly injures Balor’s shoulder (a work) and then puts his finisher on Rusev outside the ring. As #5 Heath Slater comes out, Corbin exacts a ruthless clothesline that puts him on the ground cold. All of this sets up a convenient open ring for the (brilliant!) timing of entrant #6, Elias. Guitar in hand, Elias hilariously kicks Slater on his way down and proceeds to play an anti-hometown tune until #7, Cien Almas, enters. As current NXT Champion, Cien gets a healthy pop from the audience, and he and Elias get a bit of interaction before Bray Wyatt comes down at #8. The response is lukewarm (likewise), and fortunately, no sooner than Wyatt tries to get involved, Balor returns to action. Now things start feeling like a muddled multi-man match, with Big-E adding to the pomp and circumstance at #9. He feeds Heath Slater—who’s finally made it down to the ring but still has yet to enter—the latest ludicrous New Day breakfast item, a pancake short stack.

Tye Dillinger’s music hits at #10 (“10! 10!”), but a non-entrance cuts abruptly to Zayn and Owens jumping Dillenger backstage. Sami tells Kevin, “I got this” before running to the ring. And I’ve got to be honest here, I have no problem whatsoever with this.

Reverse Expectations Bracketology

Starting the next bracket of 10 is the “birthday boy” Celtic Warrior Shamus. At #11, Shamus slings Slater into the ring, but Slater immediately whips across the ropes and clotheslines Shamus in less than :1 second “on his birthday!” (Get it?? #VinceBooking) Xavier Woods comes in at #12. The lull continues with Apollo Crews at #13 and Michael Cole even remarks, “only 4 winners have ever come from the teens.” Yeah, settle in for the mediocre portion of the Rumble. And yet Cole’s words could also be interpreted as clear misdirection. Stay tuned. Shinsuke Nakamura enters at #14, and quickly gets the chance to land big moves on nearly every heel while the crowd sings his entrance music a cappella. Cisaro enters at #15. The third member of New Day enters at #16 just before Cesaro (bless you) eliminates Crews. Jinder Mahal enters at 17 (YAY!) and, like AJ, sports some keen-looking curry-flavored trunks. Jinder is quickly becoming one of my favorites but the casual fan doesn’t seem to buy in. He gains even more of my favor by knocking out both Big E and Xavier Woods. Enter Seth Rollins at #18 much to Cisaro’s dismay.

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com, https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/men-over-the-top-royal-rumble-match-photos#fid-40199546

After Cisaro’s exit, Jinder seemingly tosses New Day’s third member, Kofi Kingston. But in the history of the Rumble, Kingston’s noteworthy gimmick features creative escapes that grant him an extra chance. In this case, one foot lands on Xavier Woods. With New Day advocating his eligible return, Big-E places a tray of pancakes under Kofi’s foot long enough for the two outside members to springboard him back in, soaring over Jinder’s head in the process. Unfortunately, the return seals Jinder’s fate, but no quicker that Kofi gets the best of Jinder does Cien toss Kofi out the other side. Fair enough, turn about is fair play for the mid-crowd.

Woken Matt Hardy enters next at #19 to medium-level “Delete!” chants. I think it’s safe to say we’re all disappointed by how tame this variation on Hardy’s original Broken character turned out. After a team-up and then a standoff, Hardy and Wyatt eliminate one another just before John Cena enters at #20. The crows actually pops decently for Cena, but once he slides into the ring, all competitors remaining gang up and group stomp him to the laughter of the audience. In a bit of frustration (that also signals their ongoing skirmish) Cena easily hoists and hurls Elias from the match. Surprise entrant “The Hurricane” comes in at #21, but Cena has him out before #22 is even announced. Aiden English comes in at #22, but with Rusev eliminated, his odds are nonexistent.

Adam Cole (“Bay-Bay!”) arrives over from NXD to raucous adulation. He goes way over with the smarks and teases a decent future on the main roster if Creative can stop screwing up talent momentum (*cough* The Club, Nakamura, Tye Dillenger, etc.). Randy Orton (ugh) enters at #24 and eliminates Cien just in time for Titus O’Neil to come in at #25. At this point, the recap is a numbers game (WWE tried to tell us) and recapping becomes more of a statistical report than a repartee of engaging action. #26 brings the heat with the Intercontinental Champ The Miz. I’m actually excited here and immediately nervous Miz won’t get enough love. But he puts in a parody of “Yes!” kicks onto Cena and Rollins before the tide turns against this momentum.

With the countdown to #27, Rey Mysterio Jr. makes an incredible surprise return. Mysterio looks as fast as ever, and part of his surprise momentum grants him safe passage for ousting Cole to the floor. Next enters Roman at #28 and the crowd showers him in “Boos!” throughout his whole slow walk down. Reigns slaps the garbage out of a few others before setting sights on The Miz. The Miztourage attempt interference, but Roman decks them both before Rollins curb-stomps Miz in the ring. He and Roman then perform a makeshift Shield elimination of Miz but Roman then straightup tosses Rollins right out of the ring. The look on both their faces is incredulous. In an absolute waste of space and momentum, Goldust enters at #29, “tying Shawn Michaels and Kane” for second most entrances, as Cole reminds the audience. Okay.

#30 and the final entrance goes to Vegas’s fourth greatest odds-maker for winning the Rumble, Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler gets in a few early superkicks, but once Balor topples him from behind, a slow pause in action showcases an “old guard versus new guard” framework with Mysterio, Cena, and Orton catching their breath on one side, while Balor, Nakamura, and Reigns rise up on the other. At this point, if WWE booked another old vet winner I would be sick to my stomach. But the energy in the room suggests we’ll finally be back to a fresh winner. And because Reigns won three years ago in the same Philly venue, the tension is high as to whether WWE will terrify spectators once more. This leaves possible fan booking nirvana of either a Balor or Nakamura Championship matchup with (we assume) AJ Styles at WrestleMania. Oh, the humanity.

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com, https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery

 

After a few quick moves, Orton is eliminated first, with Rey coming shortly thereafter. This creates a final four showdown with fascinating possibilities. The crowd offers a soft “Fin!” chant before shifting to a louder “Na-ka-mu-ra!” Reigns and Cena share a face-to-face in the ring but the crowd silences them with “You both suck!” complete with some double deuces in clear vision of the camera. Balor and Nakamura share quick one-on-one action, another dream match scenario. You can definitely see WWE’s confidence growing in a Finn Balor future (conservative projections put him on SmackDown most likely, a la AJ Styles). After 57:30 minutes as participant, Cena eliminates Balor and the crowd goes nuts into “BS” chants. Not cool, WWE. Not. Cool. The crowd grows more furious with a Cena and Reign double-team against Nakamura (who still hasn’t used his finisher, mind you.) And so he uses it, on Cena, dropping him from the match. Cue a terrific slow rise stare down between Shinsuke and Roman. A quality exchange ensues with each fighter quickly working through endgame maneuvers. The attending crowd is wigging out with this ultimate tease: fan-favorite Nakamura or fan-foil Roman Reigns? But fate showed favor on a cold Philly night, and “history” was made to cap off WWE’s yearlong serious swing toward a talent pool that accurately reflects international future interests. Nakamura wins and instantly reveals to a mic-ready Renee his intent to square off against A.J. Styles at WrestleMania.

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com, https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery

Final Intermission

There is a brief interlude featuring RAW and SmackDown GM’s and, oh whatever, Stephanie, Shane, Daniel Bryan, and Kurt Angle. Bryan gloated the win while it appears Stephanie perhaps overplays a suggestion that something is up her sleeve for the Women’s Rumble (#Rhonda?) “Yep!”

Despite starting the Rumble on a timeshift in order to skip the transitional packages, it appears WWE has tweaked their streaming service operating rules to force viewers to watch repetitious interludes and truly shameless commercial plugs like the KFC-sponsored Col. Sanders Rumble sketch. If I didn’t hate KFC already, I have to wonder what casual run of-the-mill audiences think about bits like this (or KFC in general). Come to think of it, isn’t KFC a Top 2 American fast food franchise overseas? “Yep!”

RAW Tagteam Championship – Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan vs. The Bar

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com, https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/seth-rollins-jason-jordan-sheamus-cesaro-photos#fid-40199520

I neither fully watched this match nor could I fast-forward through it (see comments above for technical difficulties). My prediction is that Shamus gets the tag title back (“on his birthday!”) while the loss fuels breakup tensions between Rollins and Jordan that takes them into a WrestleMania feud in the event that Angle has not been cleared to wrestle Jordan (the previous idea we’ve seen teased).

Oh great temporal gods of the televisual airwaves, are you kidding me? Did WWE really book both tag-team championships for the PPV and at least three post-Men’s Rumble matches? The Vegas odds of me staying awake to finish the Rumble tonight just shifted dramatically. And as predicted, a “head injury” to Jordan causes the young talent to take himself out of his own match, leaving a spent Rollins to take a pummeling from The Bar. The result: new four-time tag team champions for the smartly paired Shamus and Cesaro. “Yep!”

How long has it been since a Brock title match could honestly qualify as “filler”?

WWE Universal Championship Triple Threat Match – Brock Lesnar vs. Braun Strowman vs. Kane

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com: https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/brock-lesnar-kane-braun-strowman-photos#fid-40199601

Wow. WWE finally made a gender positive statement and puts the Women’s Rumble over by moving up this lesser inspired Universal title bout. Brock and Braun are fantastic foes, and I like the PPV output from both, but this bout is the least appealing Lesnar match dating all the way back to 2016. This would be Braun’s third time to share a ring with Lesnar since SummerSlam, but only one was a single’s match (that ended foolishly after a single F-5.). The commentators are overselling this bout big-time, a sign that reinforces flat booking. Three monsters are always cool, but Kane is semi-retired and the audience can’t even muster boos for him. His persona is so out of place at this point in the year. It is really confusing. Perhaps he was brought back in on short notice due to Samoa Joe’s injury. While pure speculation, Joe’s absence makes more sense than any of Kane’s presence.

Braun hits Lesnar with a hard knee, and I’m pretty sure Brock yells at him, “You broke my f’—ing nose!” So Brock nabs a chair and is slapping the crap out both of them. But Braun essentially takes it away. A slow-mode replay shows Brock punch Braun right in the side of the head, with the reverb along his forearm and bicep shake across his entire right side. (The GIF of this shot goes viral on Twitter by early Monday morning.) Very early on it becomes clear this is will be a big man spot match. German suplexes, F-5’s, chokeslams, chair shots, steel steps, it’s all here. Strowman makes an empathic monster babyface. WWE’s crowd seems to will him out of concussion protocol. There’s a point where you authentically think Strowman will finally obtain the elusive Universal title, but then the late-match booking comes into clear focus. Kane disrupts Braun’s momentum, he ends up outside the ring, and Lesnar F-5’s Kane onto a steel chair for a quick three count. Retention equals maximum global branding…for now. Who or what is next for Lesnar? Punk’s all-time title reign day count?

THE Royal Rumble Main Event

The First Ever 30-Woman Women’s Rumble Match

WWE has officially avoided mainstream backlash. In an age of bottom lines, stakeholder interests, global market competitiveness, spreadable media strategies, Internet social media and sports infotainment coverage, and political correctness, and of course, strategically placed press releases and media events in between the NFL’s championship and Super Bowl weekends, how could the company not book the Women’s Rumble last? The main event starts with entrances from co-announcer Stephanie McMahon (all complaints aside, why not?), followed by RAW and SmackDown champions Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair respectively. Adding their ringside presence is an appropriate measure for such a momentous occasion. They have earned the right to sit ringside since they are both unable to compete.

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Pict courtesy of WWE.com,

Sasha Banks does an amazing job entering first with a not-so-subtle Wonder Woman color scheme. Nice move there, with almost a Batwoman-type update from entrant #2 Becky Lynch (I’m probably over-reading that one quite a bit). Both ladies’ wardrobe upgrades are, to say the least, fierce. Sarah Logan enters at #3. One stipulation made clear in the rules is that entrants arrive every :90 seconds (as opposed to 2-minute intervals), which gives the Women’s Rumble competitive advantage in terms of pacing. Mandy Rose enters at #4, much to the delight of Corey Graves. But the real pops begin at #5 with Lita. Lita’s crowd momentum never really dies down although she herself finds little in-ring momentum. But May Young Classic winner Kairi Sane enters #6 and seriously clears the ring with finishers and high spots—a star is born. Tamina enters at #7, also sporting a unique all-white retro stonewash wardrobe. Whatever WWE gave up on in fireworks they’ve reinvested in new uniforms. Lita gets a second elimination on Tamina, but Becky gets the best of her afterward. Dana Brooke comes in at #8, and is back to more of a post-apocalyptic biker chick look that departs from her recent gig as the bookkeeper for Titus Worldwide. Brooke shockingly takes out Kairi Sane, which like Lita before her clearly disappoints the audience. #9 sees the return of Attitude Era eye candy Torrie Wilson. And if there is an issue with my wording there, go back on the WWE Network and revisit how they booked Wilson throughout the Attitude Era. Wilson does get a few good licks in (not the literal kind. #Sable) and even takes out Dana Brookes.

Sonya Deville comes in at #10 and looks far better in the ring than she has during all her RAW segments combined. Sonya turns the crowd away, though, when she swift kicks Torrie. Liv Morgan follows at #11, and I am once again confused between the Riot Squad and Absolution faction members. When each premiered simultaneously, with mirrored numbers and doppelganger personas, I always figured they were in cahoots. Molly Holly brings a veteran surprise at #12, and the crowd gives her a dose of respect. Indeed, even the typically hypermasculine Philly haters are game for this main even and willing to buy in. Lana arrives at #13 and maybe got her loudest pop ever, albeit to the tune of “Ru-Sev-Day!”

So. Many. Numbers.

At #14, Michelle McCool sprints down the ramp. Like Lana, McCool is serenaded by “Un-der-ta-ker!” She even eliminates Sonya Deville, Liv Morgan, Molly Holly, and then Lana in short order. #15 finds Ruby Riot joining the fray. Becky, Sasha, and Michelle each clothesline Ruby but she survives to the edge each time. Vicky Guerrero screeches into the match at #16. The “Excuse me!” shrills are so profane, I had to turn my TV down to cope with the cameo. With so many “open” spots unannounced, it was easy to see this one coming. Carmella follows at #17 and she sports an awesome late-80s/early-90s leotard with a color palette that reminds me of the opening credits to Saved by the Bell.

Natalia enters at #18, and I just wonder if her Total Divas persona expanded or limited her character development on the roster. Kelly Kelly is featured at #19, but her leaner framework and awkward rope cling brings back memories of stilted in-ring performances. The retro returns remind viewers why there needed to be a “Women’s Revolution.” Naomi brings respectability back in spot #20 with the roster’s original entrants still hanging on…but not for long. Ruby eliminates Becky Lynch just before #21. Jackeline returns to action. Nia Jax enters at #22 and brings back instant credibility and much-needed dominance by tossing out four players in about a minute (Jackeline, Kelly Kelly, Natalia, and Ruby Riot).

NXT Champ Ember Moon arrives in the #23 spot. She and Nia battle in a brief showcase spotlight. Naomi echoes Kofi Kingston by tightrope walking around the parameter corridor, but Nia catches her off the top rope to eliminate Naomi for good just as Beth Phoenix enters at #24. Meanwhile, Stephanie McMahon performed smoothly at an agreeable tone from the three-person announce team table. Her pitch was appropriate in not drawing attention to her liminal heel/face persona. No doubt she has performed a lion’s share behind the scenes to help accelerate the Women’s program, and sitting ringside nearby the two female champions makes for a subtle plant at show’s end.

#25 Asuka arrives to cheers from the crowd that will hopefully elevate her to eventual victory. She’s in some ways the most dynamic workers right now and with Charlotte and Alexa Bliss not participating, highly deserved of the winner slot. Mickey James skips in at #26 but makes little impact before the crowd pops at #27, Nikki Bella. By this point, Corey Graves has predicted about half a dozen people to win (largely based on beauty) just as the crowd, and Carmela, mock Nikki’s engagement to John Cena. Nikki retorts with head butt that sends Carmella out for good. Brie Bella exits retirement at #28 to the sound of “Yes!” chants from nearly everyone in the arena. The number of WWE couplings in recent years is astounding.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/women-over-the-top-royal-rumble-match-photos#fid-40199634

#29 brings another fan-favorite, Bayley—although the crowd goes cold perhaps due to happy-go-lucky overexposure (“brotherly love” does not warm up to hugs, apparently). The final entrant at #30 is none other than all-time Diva/WWE women’s wrestler, Trish Stratus. Like some of the previous former Divas, Trish appears slightly undersized by comparison. But this is not to suggest she’s out of ring shape. Quite the opposite. Indeed, Trish even survives the surprise elimination of Nia Jax (group effort), Natalia (via Trish), and Bayley (bless you, Sasha). This puts hopeful odds on heavy-favorite (and rightfully so) Asuka.

Sasha Banks appears to go full-heel once again after bumping into Asuka. (By Monday, WWE is already strategically placing her at odds amongst the women roster. Good timing for some series female kayfabing with WrestleMania on the horizon.) She even encourages the Bella twins to join in an Asuka three-on-one beating before they get the drop (literally) on Sasha. This leaves a two-on-one matchup featuring the Bellas versus Asuka. Seriously WWE, give the fans the respectable win we all deserve. But in a shocker reminiscent of the E! True Hollywood Story, Nikki decks Brie Bella as she dangles from the outside ropes. Vicious.

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com

And then there were two.

An Asuka-Nakamura win-win would strongly suggest a changing of the guard in the right direction. Not in a cynical way, but rather as a public recognition, an understanding of how the quality of craft and performance art of professional wrestling continues to evolve with consumer taste and interest in diversity. To the victor goes the spoils: Asuka ultimately wins (despite a terribly timed sell on the outskirt from Nikki Bella). The finish started strong (Nikki’s neck!) but ends in a quick whimper. But that’s okay, because we still get the in-ring showdown between champions. Renee Young enters again, as does Charlotte and Alexa. The stairdowns, the nonverbals, the sports entertainment psychology.

The Post-Rumble PR Stinger

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com, https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery

The music hits, the Asuka’s moment is interrupted, and the Rowdy Roddy, er, re-appropriated debut of MMA sensation Rowdy Ronda Rousey. Stephanie downplays knowing anything about the Rousey appearance, but she already coyly alluded to it backstage. Ronda is barely able to keep a serious face. The “moment” makes perfect booking sense, and while it might be easy for smarks to get up in arms over Asuka’s downplayed victory, such an audacious interruption sets up innumerable down-the-road feuds for Rousey. Now she just needs to prove she’s capable of exceeding the hype that started the moment she announced MMA retirement. She also ends the moment with a handshake/stare down with Stephanie. This notably either bookends their WrestleMania moment three years ago or perhaps provides the transitional bridge before a possible future encounter.

Thus the table is set. The increasing synergy of a publically traded company that just sold $100 million in shares to create the liquidity to jumpstart the (creatively flaccid and tonally bankrupt) XFL. The WWE succeeded in landing on every Monday morning sports website and talk radio show to kick off the start of Super Bowl week. They didn’t even have to pay for the Super Bowl ad rate. They did it their way, as they always do. Time to see where this goes. Whether a success or failure, it will surely be a spectacle to behold.

Clash of Champions 2017: Jinder All the Way?

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

Clash of Champions 2017 Review
December 17, 2017
TD Gardens, Boston, MA
Announcers Tom Phillips, Corey Graves, Byron Saxton

US championship 3-way: Bobby Roode vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Baron Corbin (c)

The build: This match was set up two weeks ago on SmackDown when Ziggler interfered in a match between Corbin and Roode. Roode returned the favor last week on SmackDown, interfering in a Corbin/Ziggler match. The announcers question whether Ziggler deserves to be in the match, foreshadowing a potential back-door win for Ziggler.

Roode and Ziggler have ignoble history here, as they had a bad match at Hell in the Cell in October in Roode’s PPV debut in which Ziggler got entirely too much offense. Ziggler also had a bad match in which he got entirely too much offense in the debut of another former NXT champion, Shinsuke Nakamura. Nakamura had a remarkably bad match against Corbin at Battleground, meaning that two out of three combatants here have tremendous talent for snuffing out ascendant talent. Not a good omen for Roode or the show to follow.

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The match: Roode is the clear face here, relishing in a full-crowd rendition of “Glorious Domination.” Though it was odd to import Roode onto SmackDown as a face, he’s making it work by trading in his heelish arrogance for a more or less straightforward plucky babyface persona. Ziggler’s doing his record-scratch anti-entrance again. Corbin gets a smattering of applause as he enters, menacing an adorable blond moppet on his way.

As they stare each other down, we get our first inanity from the booth as Saxton reminds us: “For a long time that United States championship was seen as a beacon of hope here in WWE.… But the minute Corbin won that championship, it all came to an end.” I think he was alluding to John Cena’s open challenge as a beacon of joy, but good grief. Incidentally, New Years Day will mark the 43rd anniversary of Harley Race’s inaugural U.S. championship victory in Mid-Atlantic.

Ziggler and Roode gang up on Corbin and dispose of the champ outside. They return to the ring and tease finishers. The announcers argue again whether Ziggler deserves to be in the match, leading to Corey Graves asserting: “Dolph may be the greatest in-ring performer of all time.”

Roode turns the tables on Corbin and hits a blockbuster; Roode and Ziggler take over. Roode’s middle-rope attempt at something is aborted, and Ziggler hits the fameasser. All three are finally in the ring in a rare occurrence. Roode takes out Ziggler with a uranage but walks into deep six. The crowd remains hot for Roode.

We get our first high spot of the match when they do the three-person powerbomb/superplex, with Roode eating the superplex and Corbin powerbombing Ziggler. Corbin gets near falls on both, though it would take a sports scientist to know how much additional damage the person delivering the superplex would suffer with the addition of the powerbomb. Ziggler escapes a chokeslam from Corbin, who charges into the post and takes himself out. Ziggler tunes up the band, but Roode dodges sweet hip music and gets the spinebuster. Roode goes for the glorious DDT, but Ziggler slips out and hits his own leaping DDT. Corbin returns, unsuccessfully tosses Ziggler, then charges out of the ring on a low bridge again.

Roode dodges the superkick, catapults Ziggler into the post, and hits the glorious DDT. Corbin returns, charges Roode, and gets disposed of once again (Dick Hallorann tips his hat to Corbin’s ability to intervene and immediately fail), but manages to save from outside and chokeslam Roode onto his knee, though the floor was right there. The finish comes when Corbin sets up Roode for end of days but Ziggler hits the zig zag, scoring the pin at 12:05.

What does it mean? Ziggler wins his second US championship and gets a surprising pop from the crowd. Roode would seem like the most likely contender for the belt, perhaps setting up something for Royal Rumble. Later on, Corbin vows to recapture his title and throws a tantrum backstage as the interviewer grills him about his tendency for squandering things since the failed cash-in.

Rating: *3/4. The finish was quite good and the stuff between Roode and Ziggler was fine, but once I noticed that the recurring theme of Corbin being taken out of the match, only to return and impotently be disposed of again, it became silly.

Backstage, Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon foreshadow a potential conflict that’s bound to factor into their dual-refereed match later. I find the dynamics of the whole thing interesting: the video packages are framing Shane as the virtuous babyface and Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn as the dastardly villains, but Shane’s overt vendetta against them is veering into heelish territory. Bryan, on the other hand, is teasing an alliance with Owens and Zayn, and his motives are reasonable — he claims to be protecting SmackDown’s interests by preventing Owens and Zayn from being fired by Shane in retaliation — and there’s no foreseeable way audiences are going to boo Bryan should the whole thing culminate in the rumored Shane vs. Bryan feud.

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SmackDown tag team championship four-way: Aiden English & Rusev v. Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable vs. The New Day (Big E & Kofi Kingston) vs. The Usos (c)

The build: There’s not much to this one. The Usos have been doing impressive work as champs, and here are three teams to challenge them. The match rules — four men in the ring at all times, partners can only tag partners — suggests that we’re headed to planet spotfest and the Usos are unlikely to give up their titles in such an environment where chaos is prevalent but little is meaningful. We’ll see.

The match: We start by trading rollups, and everybody tags everybody, leading to some spots to the outside. Kofi falls onto Gable and Rusev; Jey planchas onto English and Big E. Jimmy goes up to follow, but Benjamin leaps up and collar suplexes him off into a near fall. New Day takes over with the unicorn stampede. Big E slings Kofi into Benjamin and Jey before Kofi eats a big kick from Rusev, who cleans house to a big “Rusev Day” chant.

From here, we settle into Benjamin and Gable working over Kofi in one half of the ring while Rusev and English control Jimmy in the other. This leads to a terminally stupid spot in which English gets Benjamin’s attention, then covers Jimmy, forcing Benjamin to kick English to break up the pin. Why in creation would one wrestler announce to another that he’s going into a prone position? Then, of course, Gable straps on the exact same invisible kick me sign and receives a stomp from Rusev because he deserves it.

Nothing of note happens until Gable heats things up with a rolling kick on Kofi, which is followed by Kofi spiking English with his sweet standing double stomp. Jey returns to the apron after conspicuously disappearing, and he and Big E tag in and clean house. The Usos start throwing superkicks.

*Moment of reviewer subjectivity* My stance: superkicks melt snowflakes because a superkick is a kick right in the face and should never not end a match. All jokes about thigh-slapping aside, a superkick is not only the finishing move of GOAT Shawn Michaels, but it looks (and, thanks to thigh slapping, sounds) like the most impactful thing you’ll see in a standard wrestling match. If we’re suspending our disbelief and viewing the match as simulacra of athletic combat, can someone explain to me how the Usos superkick the entire tag team division multiple times on a weekly basis with little impact, but Randy Orton can make people disappear from months with one kick to the head? I do not look forward to the ensuing superkick party of hostile messages from Young Bucks fans.

Anyway, the Uso superkick party ends when Gable and Benjamin cut them off, leading to some meaningful drama as Gable locks Jey in the Texas cloverleaf as Benjamin stands guard. That doesn’t last as English drops Gable with a fireman’s carry-into-two-handed chokeslam. Rusev locks in the accolade, but Big E saves and preps the midnight hour, but English saves. Rusev drops Big E with the machka kick and sinks in the accolade deep.

In comes Gable with the best sequence of the match, lifting Rusev dead weight out of a seated position and German suplexing him onto his head. Gable then gets rolling Germans on English and Big E before going after Jey. But as he bounces Jey into the Uso corner, Jimmy tags in, saves and superkicks Gable. Another superkick puts Gable down, and a big splash finishes at 12:54.

What does it mean? Despite eating the pin, Gable proved that he deserves more spotlight once again with an inspired rush to bring the match to its endgame. The Usos retain, but there wasn’t much here in terms of character, rivalry, or storyline development.

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Rating: ** All four teams looked fine, and the crowd was hot for Rusev, but nobody comes out of the match better or worse in any way that will translate to anything meaningful. Those viewers who value workrate over story will like it more, but I doubt anyone will remember this match a month from now.

SmackDown women’s championship lumberjack match: Natalya vs. Charlotte Flair (c)

The build: Charlotte defeated then-champion Nattie at Hell in the Cell by DQ, then tapped out Nattie with the figure 8 for the belt on the Nov. 14 episode of SmackDown in her hometown of Charlotte. That victory made Charlotte a triple-crown winner (Raw, Smackdown, NXT) and culminated in an emotional embrace with her father Ric Flair in a rare appearance since his very public brush with death. I like Nattie and am a fan of her old-school heel shtick, but I can’t imagine she has a chance here.

Running concurrent to their feud is the introduction of the Riott Squad — Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, and Sarah Logan — which has been doing a hostile invasion angle parallel to that of Absolution on Raw. The Riott Squad has been beating up everyone, injuring Naomi and Becky Lynch, but Nattie has been wooing the rest of the roster over to curry favor and improve her odds.

The match: The lumberjacks are Naomi (back from kayfabe injury), Carmella (Money in the Bank briefcase in tow), Tamina and Lana, and the Riott Squad. Natalya and Charlotte lock up and trade elbows before Nattie is deposited outside the ring before being stomped by Naomi, as it becomes evident that the theme of the match will be the lumberjacks rather than the competitors. The announcers initiate an ongoing existential debate about the role of lumberjacks as the heels swarm Charlotte.

Nattie works over Charlotte, taunting her opponent and the audience with little reaction from a flatlining crowd. Each time Charlotte begins to get the upper hand, Natalya cuts her off and feeds her to the heels lumberjacks (i.e., everybody but Naomi — yes, there are only two virtuous women currently on SmackDown). Graves does some solid heeling from the booth, defending the heels’ aggression with Charlotte and praising their professionalism for sparing Nattie.

Shenanigans with lumberjacks continue to dominate the story of the match as in the midst of further interference Carmella teases cashing in before Riott and the other lumberjacks spill into the ring and out the other side. Charlotte moonsaults onto the pile, neutralizing the lumberjacks before Natalya sneak attacks and rolls her back into the ring. Natalya goes for the sharpshooter before Charlotte powers out and taps her out quickly to the figure 8 at 10:34.

What does it mean? Charlotte ends the feud in decisive fashion as it was clear throughout that the lumberjacks were the only thing keeping her from dominating Natalya. Nattie attempts to recoup some of her heat in a post-match interview, accusing Charlotte of using her family’s name to cut corners (hypocrisy: that’s good heeling!) and lashing out at the fans for turning their backs on her and claiming to have carried the division for ten years. She teases a Batista 2010 quitting tantrum but stops short, claiming she will “turn [her] back” on the fans and sobbing on the way out of the ring. What does it look like when an openly antagonistic heel turns her back on the audience? It’s hard to see where she goes from here, though, with no faces but Naomi left.

Rating: ** I’ll admit to being a mark for Natalya’s vintage heel machinations, and I thought the match told a good story in the ring: manipulative but inferior heel bends the rules to torment champion before virtue wins out. The ending was a foregone conclusion, though, and the action was totally sublimated to the ongoing lumberjack miasma.

Backstage, the Singh brothers stress that Jinder Mahal is “so so so confident” that he will win. We get yet another insinuation that the Singhs will not interfere, of which I’m less than optimistic. They are good in their roles, though, and one presume they’ll be meeting a terrible fate by the end of the night.

Breezango vs. The Bludgeon Brothers (c)

The build: And what a build it was. This is the long-delayed blow-off match after months of Fashion Files comedy skits that got Breezango over to a fair degree, as well as The Ascension, as comedy figures. The culprits of the Who-Trashed-the-Fashion-Police-office investigation turned out to the re-debuting Luke Harper and Erick Rowan. Breezango challenged Harper and Rowan on the go-home SmackDown, but the announcers aren’t giving the Fashion Police much of a chance, and one assumes this will be a quick dispatching.

The match: Harper smacks Breeze down as Rowan stalks Fandango. Breezango attempts to double-team Rowan to an advantage, but Harper intervenes, and he and Rowan brutalize their opponents, including a brutal double-team face smash to Breeze on the apron and a double sit-out power bomb and double crucifix slam to finish Fandango at 1:58.

What does it mean? RIP Fashion Files. Harper and Rowan promise more bludgeoning to come: “The end of the beginning”; “the beginning of the end.” The Bludgeon Brothers would appear to be ascendant in the SmackDown tag team ranks, but beyond rare cameos, it’s been over three years since Harper and Rowan were allowed anywhere near the top of the card with any consistency.

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Rating: * This was a pure squash match intended to get the Bludgeon Brothers over with little regard for Breezango. I’m not sure if anyone else is enthusiastic about another Harper and Rowan push, but I’m willing to ride along. Harper is pretty great in the ring, and they’ve got a good entrance even if the giant hammers are a cartoony throwback to the Berzerker (huss!) and his ax. The journey of Braun Strowman began with squashes, too.

Backstage, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn imply that Daniel Bryan is on their side. Owens is supposed to be a smarmy heel, and he is, but he also raises several valid points that give him moral ground over Shane. Owens and Zayn remain excellent in their condescending smartass roles.

Shinsuke Nakamura & Randy Orton vs. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn (c) w/ guest referees Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan

The build: Count me as being fairly intrigued by this one, as Owens and Zayn have been the best thing about SmackDown for months (apologies to AJ Styles). Nakamura remains excellent in the role he’s allowed, and WWE continues to string us along on the silent possibility that this could lead to a Bryan match at WrestleMania (a poor, deluded, mark, this one).

Shane and Owens have been feuding for months (Shane’s refereeing cost Owens his US championship to Styles; Owens retaliated by assaulting Vince McMahon), and their blood feud only crested at their Hell in the Cell match which Zayn turned delightfully heelish and rescued KO from Shane’s death plunge off the top of the cell. Owens and Zayn interfered in the Team Raw vs. Team SmackDown main event at Survivor Series, though the hype package strategically edits out the fact that Super Shane easily fended them off before falling to Triple H. Shane was about to fire Owens and Zayn before Bryan intervened, proposing a match between Zayn and Orton. Shane continues to wear his grudge like a crown in making this match, making the stipulation that if Owens and Zayn lose, they’ll be fired from WWE.

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The match: There’s a lot of star power in this match, and all six participants get decent, if underwhelming, receptions from the audience. The singalong to Nakamura’s entrance seems to perk up after the music ends. Zayn and Orton begin as Zayn heels it up by running his mouth to Orton and Shane. With the first few nearfalls it becomes clear that the referees will be the story of the match. After some awkward covers, Shane and Bryan eventually settle for cutting the ring in half, which presents an intriguing storytelling possibility: that Owens and Zayn might cut the ring in half with the goal of staying on Bryan’s side.

Finally able to proceed with the match, Zayn and Owens take over on Orton. Owens jaws at both referees, and Zayn does some trash talking but gets uppercut in the mouth for his trouble. Owens and Zayn control with quick tags and restholds before Orton gets free with a belly-to-back suplex and tags in Nakamura. Nakamura brings it with a barrage of kicks and knees on Owens. Immediately, though, the announcers siphon Nakamura’s heat by drawing attention back to the referees. Owens attempts a powerbomb out of the corner but falls prey to a triangle choke. Nakamura releases and gets distracted by the quarreling referees, walking into an Owens superkick. Zayn tags in goes for the helluva kick, charging into Nakamura’s boot but regaining control with a blue thunder bomb.

Owens sentons into Nakamura’s knees, allowing Zayn and Orton to tag in. Orton takes out Zayn with a picture-perfect top-rope superplex, but Owens pulls him out and all the action spills onto the floor where Owens drives Nakamura throw a table with a frog splash. Zayn holding Nakamura on the table by the hair was a nice touch. Back inside, Orton takes control with a snap powerslam and draping DDT on Zayn, then dropping Zayn with an RKO as Shane cheerleads. KO saves his partner by pushing Bryan onto Shane, interrupting the count. Shane berates Bryan as Orton stalks the latter in predator stance before dropping Owens with an RKO.

Zayn and Orton trade rollups before Shane refuses to count three. Shane and Bryan get into a shouting match that ends when Zayn rolls up Orton out of an RKO attempt and Bryan fast counts the pin at 21:33. Shane dives at Bryan to attempt to stop the count but is unsuccessful.

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What does it mean? The feud must continue and the shades of gray get grayer. Owens and Zayn keep their jobs and gain more ammunition for their legitimate conflict with Shane as Zayn scored a clear visual pinfall that Shane blatantly refused to count. Meanwhile, the conflict between Shane and Bryan should intensify as they were at each other’s throats throughout the match. Where this goes remains to be seen, of course: will it culminate in Bryan’s return to the ring, or will we get Shane vs. Bryan’s avatar or avatar vs. avatar?

It will be interesting to see what direction they go, as something is clearly amiss in the characterizations. Shane is presumably playing face, and the packages back that up, but Shane’s behaviors are heelish in that he’s actively rooting for the demise of two employees who have clear grievances against management, whose jobs are being threatened gleefully. This all begs the question: is this another instance of WWE overestimating our capacity to identify with the McMahons (Exhibit A: WrestleMania’s Shane vs. Styles match), or is this part of a greater swerve that will turn Shane heel? What would that mean for Bryan? I get cold sweats at the possibility of another season in hell of McMahons as heel authority figures, and I’m not sure I’d live that again even if it guaranteed a return to the ring for Bryan.

As for Orton and Nakamura, this did very little. They were nothing more than avatars for Shane McMahon, and they didn’t look particularly good here.

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Rating: *3/4. This was all angle, and though the match would appear to move the storyline forward in its escalation of the conflict between Shane and Bryan, the match itself didn’t help any of the wrestlers and all the in-ring storytelling was hamstrung by the inevitable refereeing shenanigans that would bring on the finish. Outside of one flourish from Nakamura, everything that happened before the finish was meaningless and heatless. The split-ring refereeing premise was potentially intriguing but didn’t factor into the finish.

WWE championship: Jinder Mahal w/ the Singh Brothers vs. AJ Styles (c)

The build: OK, we’ve got to talk about this Jinder Mahal thing. In many ways, the Jinder experiment is the story of the year in WWE, as his instant elevation was at once bold — we’ve been begging WWE for new stars, which they’ve struggled to do since the days of Batista and Cena — and an utter slog on the program. Jinder’s 170-day foreign heel revival reign was part nostalgia, part retrograde. It raised questions about whether the days of bulging muscles over in-ring talent were back, whether globalization and international-market capitalism mattered over in-ring storytelling — and just where in the heck this was all leading?

It seemed assured that Jinder’s reign would lead through the fabled India tour (which ended up being a single show), but Jinder dropped the championship to Styles on Nov. 7 in Manchester in an ultra-rare overseas title switch. In a rare last-minute change of direction, the title switch canceled the advertised Mahal vs. Brock Lesnar champion-versus-champion match at Survivor Series, resulting in (one would imagine) a much, much better Lesnar vs. Styles match that ended up being the best world championship match in WWE of the year. Mahal jobbed to Triple H in India, sending up signals that the Jinder experiment could end with a loss in his rematch with Styles. But the specter of Mahal reclaiming the title from Styles at Clash and holding it until a rumored match with John Cena at WrestleMania persisted.

Which is all to say that the possibility of another Jinder title reign was a seriously agonizing thought to me as I prepared to watch this show. I’ll declare here two subjective viewpoints: (1) I thought Jinder was showing progress as a character from the start of the experiment, and (2) Styles should have never dropped the championship in the first place. Everything with the WWE championship since Styles dropped the belt to Cena at Royal Rumble — Cena’s useless one-month reign before dropping it to Bray Wyatt in a multi-man match that easily could have been accomplished with Styles as champ, Wyatt’s embarrassing feud with Orton that gave us the House of Horrors match, Orton’s repetitive feud with Mahal (Punjabi prison match!), and Mahal’s demoralizing feud with Nakamura — has been negative for SmackDown and a degradation of the promotion’s most prestigious championship.

Those who read Wrestlecrap handed the Gooker — Wrestlecrap’s award for worst thing of the year — to House of Horrors, but to me the worst thing in wrestling this year was Jinder’s overtly racist promos against Nakamura (https://deadspin.com/fans-chant-that-s-too-far-during-racist-wwe-promo-1818579727). Check that: the promos weren’t the worst thing; the worst thing was Jinder being proven right in his racism by beating Nakamura clean.

For the record, I think racism can work in wrestling because, to me, wrestling storylines are most potent when they capture real-life concerns and anxieties. Throughout wrestling history, we’ve had racist characters — e.g., Colonel DeBeers, Ted DiBiase in his Mid-South feud with Junkyard Dog, the Fabulous Freebirds — and wrestling fans booed them and cheered the characters of color, which crafts the message that racism is bad. But there are times when racist characters win: Triple H’s notorious win over Booker T at WrestleMania 19; JBL’s championship with over Eddie Guerrero, and when the character goes over the other, it justifies that character’s motivations.

Thus, WWE could have told a powerful story by establishing Jinder’s heel credentials by resorting to the racism he previously decried, then having Nakamura kinshasa his head off (ideally with an exaggerated bow) in the name of justice. Instead, WWE not only put Mahal over, utterly kneecapping Nakamura, but put him over clean by having the alleged “artist” slip on a proverbial banana peel, stumbling like a klutz into a khallas. And that was the moment I was off the Jinder train forever. The storyline wasn’t his fault, but the bad, repetitive matches are anti-justification for such putrid storytelling.

All that said, the pre-match hype package, featuring sit-down interviews with Styles and Mahal cut together, did a great job setting the stage for a big-fight feel.

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The match: The crowd is into Styles, but Jinder has a significant contingent of vocal supporters out there, too. Mahal establishes his size advantage early, but Styles takes him down and begins working the left leg in preparation for the calf crusher. Jinder cuts him off and begins to work on Styles’ ribs, dropping him across the top rope; slamming him into, then over, the barricade; and dropping him onto a table. Working the body is classic in-ring psychology, and I like two things about this part of the match: (1) Jinder’s offense isn’t exciting, but everything he does looks like it hurts; (2) Jinder frequently sells the left leg even on offense. Styles bumps like a pinball and sells like a champ for Mahal. Ten minutes in and Jinder is in control and heeling it up.

Mahal goes to the middle rope and eats a dropkick to give Styles breathing room, but the Singh brothers are jawing and Styles goes for the phenomenal forearm too early, allowing Mahal to go back to the ribs with a fireman’s carry into a gutbuster. Mahal’s hubris gets the best of him again, as Styles slips out of a superplex and drops him in the electric chair. They go back and forth with Styles selling his ribs but persevering, unable to deadlift Mahal for the Ushigoroshi neckbreaker but succeeding with the help of Mahal’s momentum off the ropes.

Mahal fights out of the Styles clash by forcing him into the corner and then dropping him straight down on the ribs. Styles gets a northern lights suplex for a nearfall, but Mahal takes control again with a Samoan drop. “You can’t not be impressed by Jinder Mahal tonight,” Graves says earnestly, and I’m inclined to agree. Heels don’t have to be exciting on offense when they’re putting the faces in peril. Mahal sets up Styles for the khallas but eats the Pele kick; Styles goes against for the clash but ends up eating a big boot in the exchange. Mahal sets up a khallas off the middle rope, but Styles counters with the Pele and dumps Mahal to set up the Superman 450 splash; he hits but the Singhs pull Mahal out for their first direct interference 20 minutes in. In the grand tradition of destroying the Singh brothers with impunity, Styles disposes of them with the forearm to Sanil and a Styles clash on the floor to Samir.

We move to our endgame as Styles overshoots the forearm and takes a knee to the back of the head, which Mahal follows with the khallas. But before the sun extinguishes and our dark night of the soul returns, Styles kicks out at the last moment. That wakes the crowd up, and Jinder’s out of ideas. Mahal then teases a Styles clash of his own, but AJ rolls him into the calf crusher. Mahal struggles to the ropes, but Styles rolls him back to the middle, and Mahal taps at 22:57 to send the fans home happy and end our long national nightmare.

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What does it mean? This presumably ends the Jinder Mahal experiment at the top of the card, and though he’ll remain in the upper midcard for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to know what to expect from him. Guys who had similar trolling reigns — Honkey Tonk Man, JBL — stuck around for years. One avenue might be the US title: perhaps Ziggler drops to Roode at the Rumble to set up Roode/Mahal at WrestleMania? The US title is logically where Mahal should have begun anyway.

As for Styles, everything seems fresh and new again, as this is Styles’ first world title reign as a face. They could go Owens, perhaps backed by Bryan with Shane in Styles’ corner — though we really don’t need any incarnation of WrestleMania 2000. They could go with the Rumble winner from either brand. Or, if Vince really checks out to focus on bringing back the XFL (there’s a sentence for our times), we can fantasize about the Styles/Nakamura clash they teased at Money in the Bank. They could re-import Chris Jericho after Wrestle Kingdom 12 to try out his vicious heel act that’s been tearing it up with Kenny Omega: we just saw it two years ago at WrestleMania, but why not as a challenger along the way given the exemplary heel work Jericho’s doing in Japan? A sleeper short-term option could be Corbin: the announcers framed Corbin’s taking the US title from AJ Styles as redemption for his failed Money in the Bank cash-in, so they could try to recreate that magic.

Rating: ***1/4. This was the best Mahal match I’ve seen thanks to good psychology from both wrestlers. AJ remains the best in-ring performer in the company. The right man went over cleanly, and it finally feels safe to breathe easy about the main event of SmackDown pay per views.

Final grade: C-. Traditionally December pay per views are among the worst on the calendar, and this one lived down to that overall with only one above-average match and yet another episode of McMahon inanity eclipsing the in-ring talent. I think the Jinder dragon is finally slain after months of bad matches, repetitive tropes, and occasionally racism, and I would have gladly sat through Heroes of Wrestling 2017 if that’s the pot of gold at the end.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All images are courtesy of http://www.wwe.com/shows/wweclashofchampions/2017/gallery.

WWE’s Survivor Series Dialogic Recap: The Art of Interbrand Manipulation

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

By Garret Castleberry and Kristine Weglarz

With Survivor Series headed to Houston, WWE once again experiments with the traditional team-up versus team-up formula. A couple of years ago, WWE completely abandoned the traditional four-on-four tag team format when the abrupt injury to WWE heel champion Seth Rollins led to a rushed together tournament designed to put the main title strap on a struggling Roman Reigns. Fast-forward two years and Reigns, for better or worse, still struggles to generate mass appeal due to his “oversaturation” as top babyface for the company. And while Reigns may have headlined a “too sweet” Shield reunion as co-main event, recent illness helped create a last-minute shuffle of the Survivor Series card from the top down.

Last year, Survivor Series capitalized on the resurgence of the “brand split” storyline, pitting red brand (RAW) against blue brand (SmackDown). The five-on-five bout generated a decent amount of heat and placed several new and old superstars and rivals into an ultimately entertaining assembly. This year continued the brand vs. brand formula while upping the invasion-themed ante and clearly setting up possible interactions that could springboard the roster toward the Royal Rumble and the “Road to Wrestlemania,” as it is annually referenced.

In the spirit of WWE’s preferred new formula, our Survivor Series coverage playfully adheres to the pseudo-division of brand representation. Each of our contributors offers commentary and feedback, recorded in a combination of pre-event, in media res, and directly following Survivor Series. To match the WWE’s dualistic theme, we split commentary into the two brands, with Garret (GC) covering from a slightly RAW perspective  and Kristine (KW) representing the SmackDown flair. Our goal is to compliment WWE’s preference for genre admixture while hopefully presenting readers with an asynchronous companion read to accompany future Survivor Series streams.

 

Survivor Series Pre-show

Matt Hardy vs. Elias Samson

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/matt-hardy-vs-elias-kickoff-match-photos#fid-40185718

KW: One has to wonder with how poorly the WWE has booked Matt Hardy post-WrestleMania tag titles run if he and Jeff were just brought in to cool their competition elsewhere. Elias is a decent heat magnet but both these guys deserve a better build and a better place on the card.

GC: I think this run for the Hardy’s will ultimately end with a “What if?” asterisk beside it. The duo arguably stole the show with the pop of the night at WrestleMania XXXIV, capping off their epic year wrestling as Broken Matt and Brother Nero. That TNA can spike and decline so severely so quickly speaks to the volatility of the wrestling scene at large, particularly outside WWE’s normative formulas and corporate structures. My feeling is that Jeff’s shoulder surgery sidelined any larger role the brothers will have, and we can anticipate an unceremonious Monday Night exit a la The Dudley Boys before them.

KW: I’m fearful you’re right, but hopeful you’re wrong, as the copyright battle continues over the Broken gimmick in the courts. I think if they time it right, Jeff heals up, they could hit the ground running with it in WWE, but I fear they are going to be reduced to a nostalgia act. Shield, take notice. Truthfully, I am amazed that Anthem is still able to put up a legal defense given the circumstances of their business but admittedly I don’t know all the details behind it.

GC: That is funny. You don’t know what corporate parent you will be sponsored as from week to week on Impact, and the only place they can consistently deliver appears to be in court. “Delete!” indeed.

Winner: Elias

Kalisto Vs. Enzo (205 Live)

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/enzo-amore-kalisto-kickoff-match-photos#fid-40185732

KW: I’ll give credit to both of these folks for getting the cruiserweight division off life support. Enzo works as a heel and keeping him in the division while Cass heals works ok. This division still needs a lot of work before it’s ready to stand on its own, and Enzo might be the ticket to that, but his precarious status with the company makes that increasingly risky. Further, I worry that the perceived glass ceiling of the division will continue to make talent and fans look elsewhere. Part of why the cruiserweight division worked so well in WCW was because the rest of the card was just so bloated with the same faces (NwO, other ex NWA and WWE/WWF guys). The dynamic isn’t the same here.

GC: Enzo and Kalisto, ironically two traditional main roster talents that have crossed over to “save” the struggling Cruiserweight division and 205 Live on the network. I still have not watched 205 Live and anyone that writes or talks about it has little positive to say. But I admire the RAW producers for giving Enzo and company the main event spotlight across several weeks leading up to the PPV. Too bad they still barely made the pre-show.

Winner: Enzo

Owens/Zayn vs. Breezango

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/breezango-vs-kevin-owens-sami-zayn-survivor-series-kickoff-match#fid-40185774

KW: These guys should still both not be on the pre-show. Arguments aside about pre-shows being used to hype up interest, they’re both teams that are well over with crowds (heat/punishments aside). Owens and Zayn breaking the fourth wall and calling the booking what it is with a worked shoot. Credit to the bookers for giving Zayn/Owens mic time even on the pre-show. On a side note, it bears repeating that the Breezango experiment really serves as a testament to the successes of the brand split, and in particular, how WWE has positioned SmackDown vis-a-vis RAW. Prior to the brand split and this team pairing, both Breeze and Fandango were barely on tv and used mostly for house shows. Their ability to get tv segments and matches, and now a pre-show match given their previous low booking status and get audiences invested in them likely would not have happened if they remained on the crowded landscape that was/is RAW. Despite this, Zayn and Owens needed the win more than Breezango to keep their momentum as a team going and I am not so sure we won’t see them later on in the PPV.

GC: Recapping from a slight time delay, when you contacted me with dismay that Zayn and Owens landed on the Survivor Series pre-show, my heart nearly skipped a beat with relief given recent negative rumors that the two were sent home early from the European tour. I’ve quite enjoyed Zayn’s Gen X’er tweener heel turn, and I love that he’s retained the Ska entrance music with ironically larger dance-stomps. Bottom line: fans should remember that Owens got to “grab that brass ring” recently with a signature headbutt to THE Chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon. This is the larger sign of importance and trust regardless of where the duo landed on the card (see Dean Ambrose WrestleMania XXXIII pre-show IC match earlier this year). At the same time, if the two truly were sent home early (not as a work), then I would speculate that this is what led to the near complete card shake up, including The Shield’s placement, Reigns out of the co-Main Event, and perhaps even AJ Styles’ abrupt WWE Championship win.

KW: Truthfully, the match was just announced either yesterday or today, so while there’s no way to know how far in advance it was thought out, it doesn’t appear to be part of a long term strategy. There’s no booking to back it up either. I love Zayn in general and I’ve enjoyed his recent heel-turn, but to be fair I thought he was one of the most organic faces the company’s created in a while, and truthfully I’m looking forward to his eventual return to face.

Winners: Owens/Zayn

The Shield vs. The New Day

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/the-shield-the-new-day-photos#fid-40185815

KW: I continue to love factions in wrestling, and wish they did more than just tag teams in WWE. New Day and the Shield represent the few overtures towards factions WWE has put out recently. Interesting foreshadowing here by New Day of internal fractures within the Shield, and their inevitable re-breaking up. I have to admit there is a certain excitement about a PPV that isn’t Roman-centric, though it is surprising given how frequently the Survivor Series debut of the Shield gets mentioned by commentary. Roman still struggles to get over even when paired with Seth and Dean again, which does not bode well if they’re going to continue pushing him as a face at the top of the company. Roman gets in his usual mid-match rest outside of the ring. RAW with the win this time—a fantastic, long, well done match that serves as a good start to the show. I may not love the Shield as faces but I’d take a face Shield over no Shield at all. Full credit to the New Day for carrying their half of the match; they’re regularly in the best match of any particular PPV with or without titles on the line, much as the Shield were pre-breakup. They continue to serve as an anchor for the SmackDown brand regardless of title status, in fact, they don’t need them.

GC: What are your thoughts on the split-style T-shirts sported by Shield members? I wonder if those are on sale tonight only at the event. The half red/RAW and half-Shield is oddly indicative of a wasted revival for this beloved faction. There was no doubt that the team would one day rejoin. However, the move came quite soon in this reviewer’s opinion, which takes a bit of the emotional reaction out of the fan experience. To further complicate matters, we have Reigns going down due to illness prior to TLC and The Shield’s planned PPV reunion became a gimmick that was overshadowed by Kurt Angle’s big return. Now, we have The Shield up against a drastically cooled down New Day, in a largely lopsided matchup that appears to be the official show opener. So much for capitalizing on a foolproof faction.

KW: Those shirts…. are something else. I suppose it beats their debut attire (turtlenecks) but just barely. A good match, but the Shield reunion is clearly setting up for a future heel turn (probably Dean, he’s overdue).

GC: I will say that there was way more offense featured in this opener than I would have guessed. I do not think that these two match up at all from a narrative perspective. The New Day is so comically gimmick-based. Plus, that onesy on Big E! It literally makes no sense when Rollins and Ambrose essentially went two on five at TLC against mostly big men, so it took nearly the whole match to get me into the action. However, the false finish was nice and both groups really ratcheted up the action for an *obvious* finish. I do feel bad for Reigns as he simply cannot win over the large crowds probably from here on out.

Winners: The Shield

SmackDown vs Raw Women’s Division (Becky Lynch, Tamina, Naomi, Carmella, Natalya (with Lana) vs. Alicia Fox, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Nia Jax, and Asuka)

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/womens-5-on-5-traditional-survivor-series-elimination-match-photos#fid-40185826

KW: I have to admit I’m a little lost on the booking here, having two of the most over women get pinned first. The Nia/Tamina tease is a fantastic one, and it’s a shame that this is likely the only time these two will face off, as they sort of represent the one monster heel woman for each brand. When setting up this match, it really revealed the problems with the SmackDown women’s roster. Charlotte is a recent addition (and she’s in a different match) but SmackDown has struggled to book really compelling women’s champions outside of Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss (who is now with RAW). This wasn’t helped in the least by having the first ever women’s money in the bank match won by recently released James Ellsworth, decidedly not female, on behalf of Carmella. I’ve often wondered if the women’s roster would benefit from being on one brand given its size but I fear it would get even less time as a result. Let’s be real though, this is the Asuka show, we’re just living in it.

GC: I am digging Nia Jax’s braids in that backstage segment. But I cannot handle Alicia Fox on any roster at this point. The campy tone of her persona—and those line readings—are not winning USA Network any new viewers. Thank you, Corey Graves, for filler like, “Byron, Naomi’s dancing so you don’t have to–knock it off!” That said, Naomi really has been able to innovate her “Feel the Glow” gimmick far longer than anyone could have anticipated. In other intro news, it was nice to see Asuka receive RAW’s final entrance. Do they have something special in store after her flat main roster start against Emma?

Once the match started, I was quite let down that Becky Lynch had to fall on the rollup sword. However, like Charlotte she is politely playing a rotational role long after they stole the show with Sasha Banks at WrestleMania XXXIII. Likewise, Nia’s elimination was the dumbest count out I’ve ever seen, what with Tamina entering and exiting twice during the ref’s count. This ref also botched the timing of Bayley’s pinfall (or was it the other way around—yipes). One memorable moment comes when Tamina and Nia square off for the first time. It was a pretty cool stair down that led to the logical count out. Similar to Lynch’s early exit, this strategic move helped provide an underdog scenario for team RAW and a spotlight opportunity for the smaller performers late.

Sole Survivor: Asuka (Team RAW)

Intermission commentary

KW: Daniel Bryan’s on screen role as General Manager of SmackDown has done so much of the heavy lifting to level out the discrepancy between the two shows. With the rumors that he will leave the company next year if he isn’t cleared to wrestle, SmackDown and WWE in general needs to look really critically at how they want to position the Blue brand in light of his potential departure; these are big shoes to fill.

GC: Am I the only one that cannot understand for the life of me why Daniel Bryan doesn’t look more “TV ready” on SmackDown? I know he’s an herbal dude, all natural and everything that goes with a clean organic lifestyle, but surely there’s a cage free makeup kit that could enhance his on camera presence (or at least eliminate the greasy hair and crow’s’ eyes). Maybe he’s just performing “tired dad,” in which case, I completely get it!

KW: There was a rumor I read that he’s growing his hair out for a hair vs. hair match in case he’s cleared to wrestle. The hair is too short to ponytail I suppose. I miss Jesus-looking Daniel Bryan, but I’ll take tired dad Bryan too.

Daniel Bryan could definitely sport a man bun and fans would get behind it.

Baron Corbin vs. The Miz

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/the-miz-baron-corbin-photos#fid-40185880

KW: I’ll give Corbin credit for “most improved since NXT.” He’s occasionally incredibly entertaining to watch in the ring, with a great finishing move, and has the potential to be a good talker now and then. That said, the last few years for the Miz have been astronomically great, and he is easily one of the best heat magnets in the WWE right now. I will say though that it was Talking Smack, the SmackDown post-show that was recently cancelled that really gave the Miz his launching pad, prior to his trade over to Raw. The cancellation of that show continues to elude me in terms of reasons, as it did more for character development and match promotion than an hour and change of RAW normally provides. Corbin needs this match more than the Miz does, if only because he’s seemed sort of directionless lately, as has the US title since AJ Styles dropped it.

GC: It is very clear from the two opening RAW wins that SmackDown will level out the main event somehow. Same (I prognosticate) with Corbin over Miz. The Miztourage has been a great way to extend, or should we say RAW-size, Miz’s current persona. He is WWE’s top talker right now and has been for over a year. Given a decade’s worth of time on the clock, at this point he has no problem putting others over under a premium heel banner.

KW: My only hope is that The Miztourage doesn’t suffer the same fate as Damien Sandow. I couldn’t care less about Bo Dallas but poor Curtis Axel deserves something to work with. And while we’re on the subject of bad booking, what in god’s name happened to Bray Wyatt? I feel like he might win the award for worst booking of the last five years.

GC: Miz versus Corbin was the definition of mid-card filler. There was actually plenty of action, almost nonstop in fact. And I do like that WWE pitted two heels against one another. But I felt no investment whatsoever and couldn’t care less about the outcome. They did their part, they’ll cash their checks, and go back to their brands. Next.

Winner: Baron Corbin

The BAR vs. The Usos

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/cesaro-sheamus-the-usos-photos#fid-40185918

KW: Credit to both these teams for totally rebranding themselves in the best way possible in the last year and change. Sheamus and Cesaro work as a fantastic tag team and Cesaro’s long been overdue for some recognition. The Usos however have managed to go from a boring but competent team to a team I actually want to watch wrestle, and who can cut decent promos. Their heel turn was long overdue and did them every favor imaginable. The second match in a row on this card featuring heels vs. heels. While I realize that the format of Survivor Series often necessitates that, I’m surprised by how well it works, but I think this is due in part to how well these heels are booked and the degree to which they’re over. This may not necessarily be the case for faces, which WWE struggles to book with the same strength. If only the rest of the SmackDown tag teams could be booked as well as the Usos, because outside of them and New Day, the tag team division in SmackDown is pretty weak and relatively thin. Commentary is doing a great job of bringing in continuity here from previous Survivor Series with these teams, a testament to the degree to which the commentary teams have improved with the brand split. No one does the hot tag better than the Usos, and they deserve a decently long title reign.

GC: Another filler match unfortunately. The Usos have picked up interest and momentum since turning heel (and the WrestleMania snub), and Cesaro/Sheamus is a team I’m sympathetic toward. These guys, like Miz, are making the most of their situation (the brass ring doesn’t tug when Cesaro pulls it, apparently), and I still can’t get over his dental accident at TLC.

KW: I guess I could see how you’d view it as filler, because really how do you book these inter-brand matches with a backstory? Apparently Vince has a weird thing where he finds it just endlessly entertaining for Cesaro to do his promos with his mouthguard in. I’ll leave you to think about that one.

GC: Oh, I’ve noticed Cesaro’s mouthpiece lisp all right. In a truly bizarre coincidence, the week before Cesaro’s accident, I have a young nephew that experienced nearly the exact same accident (but off a bunk bed). The dental surgeon recommended waiting 1-2 months to see if the teeth would naturally drop or not. I kind of assumed Cesaro might be in a similar wait-and-see position. He needs to stay off the mic entirely right now, because that is not helping his situation. If there is a silver lining, at least these performers have been allowed pretty respectable match times. No real squash matches have also kept both brands strong. On top of that, the Usos win makes the “official” scorecard 2-2, which opens up the Women’s Champion vs. Champion match by making the victor less predictable.

Winners: The Usos

Alexa Bliss vs Charlotte Flair

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/alexa-bliss-charlotte-flair-photos#fid-40185953

KW: With the recent title change from Natalya to Charlotte, I feel like this match never really got the buildup it deserved. While having Charlotte hold the title was probably the right choice, a few more weeks of buildup for this feud would have done wonders. I will say the audience is into this match (as am I) which is a nice change from so many years of women’s matches at PPVs. I’m pleasantly surprised by the physicality of this match and the length of it thus far, though this does make me worry that AJ vs Brock is going to be a five-minute one and done squash.

GC: Did you notice how Charlotte as babyface features a more natural look, whereas her heel persona, like Bliss’s, is heavy on the dramatic David Bowie eyeliner? Alexa Bliss’s eyeliner seemingly gets its own backstage segments on RAW in recent weeks (unconfirmed). This is a fantastic match, and I might suggest this joins the women’s roster elimination match as the only rewatchable bouts from this PPV (so far). These two are selling hard and looking strong at the same time. Credit Charlotte for not pushing or allowing for a quick ending. And rather than the pin, she does get Bliss to tap out. Well done.

Winner: Charlotte Flair

Brock Lesnar vs. AJ Styles

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/brock-lesnar-aj-styles-photos#fid-40185988

KW: I’m not sure if I’m in the majority or minority when it comes to Brock as champ: I like Brock Lesnar (and I LOVE Paul Heyman) but I’ve always disliked the silly argument about raising the prestige of the belt when he doesn’t defend it at every RAW branded PPV. Arguments about part-timers aside (and they are legitimate arguments), this match has me worried. I truthfully see no way AJ wins this one because of how protected Brock is, and the foreshadowing they had with Jinder Mahal in the pre-show, and all it does is hurt AJ as champ. Brock can take the loss, and eventually will have too, but as they’re probably saving it for the unsatisfying match with Roman Reigns, I wish they’d have him lose. AJ Styles has been the best addition to both SmackDown and WWE in the last few years, losing not a single step from how hot he was in New Japan. AJ Styles can get a good match out of a broom, but I’m curious to see if he can make it work here.

The audience seems to be slightly more behind Styles but this squash match is painful to watch right now. Commentary is referencing the Cena/Brock match from Summer Slam 2014 and setting this up as some sort of a parallel, but that match came at the end of a long period of LOLCENAWINS and seeing Cena just get demolished was pure catharsis. There’s been no such LOLAJWINS with AJ Styles entrance into the WWE. A brief but brutal moment where AJ had the calf crusher locked in and a few minutes of impressive offense from AJ Styles afterwards provided a rare moment in most Brock matches where an opponent gets in some convincing offense. One of Brock’s better matches lately but I’m over him holding the Universal title.

GC: I was decently interested to see how up-and-comer Jinder Mahal stacks up against the establishment beast-heel in Brock Lesnar. However, the last-minute title change got me all kinds of jacked up for the WWE Champion versus Universal Champion match. While Brock’s protection is a foregone conclusion, how the match plays out felt intriguing no matter the direction they took. The start of the match features outright domination by Lesnar, a visual sequel to his takedown of Roman Reigns at WrestleMania XXXI and of John Cena prior to that. But unlike the Reigns match, AJ musters the gumption to hang on just long enough for Lesnar to get winded. Then, AJ’s stamina kicks in and the match elevates to another level.

Continuing the through line of keeping both brands strong, by allowing AJ to get a fair amount of licks in, this easily became Brock’s best match since his Hell in a Cell with The Undertaker two years ago. They gave WWE Universe and smart marks alike a memorable encounter that will be on dialogic replay for years to come. I am not offended by part-timers in the least bit, and even less offended by part-time champions (especially considering the ridiculous number of belts floating around this company). While I wanted to see Braun Strowman or Samoa Joe previously defeat Brock, I understand his need to keep his wins going at this point. After all, he did collapse the Undertaker’s streak (and not for nothin’). Examining all the cut marks covering both competitors, as well as Brock’s Undertaker-esque hard sell on his left knee injury, this match qualifies as an instant classic.

Winner: Brock Lesnar

RAW vs. SmackDown (Kurt Angle, Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman, Triple H vs. Shane McMahon, Randy Orton, Shinsuke Nakamura, Bobby Roode, John Cena)

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/mens-5-on-5-traditional-survivor-series-elimination-match-results#fid-40186044

GC: Thinking about the entrances, Triple H would get his own signature red T-shirt while everyone else has to play ball (including Strowman). He just can’t help himself. Hmm, Michael Cole just said that only Kane and The Undertaker have appeared in more PPVs…I wonder how far off H is? FYI, he seems to be getting the full intro while Angle, Balor, et al. received abbreviated status. Some things never change (again, not really complaining but it doesn’t go unnoticed either).

I LOVE how stacked this main event is. That said, Busted Open radio brought up the average age of the main event participants. I think the number they through out was like, 37.5, but I feel like that number is more like 40 at least. Also, I’m going to go against the haters and say I like Cena’s new lime green T-shirt and sweatbands (incidentally getting separate merch like H).

KW: Someone aptly pointed out on Reddit the ages of all the participants in the main event. Not to take anything away from any of them, especially Finn Balor, Nakamura, Strowman, Roode, Joe, folks new-ish to WWE, but they made a good point: this is a relatively old main event, or the roster itself is aging. I say that in light of the fact that I still think getting Jason Jordan out of the main event was a smart idea. Jordan isn’t remotely over, the storyline with him being the son of Kurt Angle is bizarre and not working, and I have no idea what they were thinking splitting him and Chad Gable up, especially given the need for more tag teams. Bray Wyatt would have been a nice inclusion here but as previously mentioned, his booking since moving to RAW has been awful, especially given he was WWE Champion and Tag Team Champion on SmackDown, and it worked. The entire Wyatt family deserves better than their last year or so of booking and I hope they get a chance to hit the reset button soon, and perhaps move Wyatt back to SmackDown for his own good.

GC: I am in the majority that feels Bray Wyatt, no matter how talented, is as cold as ice right now and essentially a notch above “enhancement talent.” Ditto and I agree about Jason Jordan. Part of me feels the audience was already headed for a bait-and-switch on that position. Its possible WWE is setting up a father-son match as the proverbial placeholder on the way to an Angle-HHH Mania. I don’t really think they ended up with a single weak link in this main event, and perhaps the audience was treated to a true passing of the torch between the old guard of the last generation and the faces that dominated the main event scene of NXT over the last three years. Both the female and male co-main events was smartly booked, particularly for “big four” PPV appeal.

KW: Shinsuke being pinned early was questionable, as despite a less than stellar start on the main roster, Nakamura’s been consistently one of the most over performers. Interestingly, I had to remind myself that Cena, Orton and HHH were in this match, as my focus was entirely on everyone else. That was until Cena and Angle were both in the ring at the same time, and I legitimately got goosebumps, never sure I would see this match again.

GC: I heard commentators complain about the possibility that the fresh blood would be eliminated early. But guess what? Come for the spectacle, stay for the drama. The story is in the returning hierarchy, and actually, the ending does an immense job putting over the new talent. WWE kept HHH off of TV for a really long time, and even his WrestleMania lead-in to Seth Rollins was limited by his own standard. While his entrance felt entirely random last Monday, the crowd still pops every time. He earned this return, and once again H got to have his cake and eat it too. Hunter truly is a McMahon.

KW: I’ll say this much, Shane McMahon has no right to be this entertaining at this age, and holy hell, if they could book everyone they way Strowman has been booked, the quality of the product would be infinitely better. I guess it wouldn’t be a Survivor Series without a screwjob. Well played and well-time interferences by HHH on Kurt Angle, with Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens running interference by jumping Shane McMahon before that.

GC: Like most of the card for this year’s Survivor Series, this match was very well paced. One of the strong points lies in how the main eventers allowed time for inaugural stare downs so that the audience could savor brand new match-ups not only between brands, but also between untapped encounters like Nakamura against Finn Balor, HHH and Bobby Roode, and Braun Strowman against both Randy Orton and John Cena. This match has a little of everything, and in an era of insta-reactions and toxic social media uprisings, I would argue this match was booked about as logically as one could ever hope for. And for the haters that will be mad at Joe, Balor, Nakamura, and Roode’s early exits, remember that these superstars got the elevating rub by appearing in the main event.

Winning Brand: Team RAW

Sole Survivor(s): HHH and Braun Strowman

Anniversary Screwjob: HHH pedigrees Kurt Angle

Lasting Impression: An organic Braun Strowman babyface turn.