Monday, December 16, 2013

Gorilla Position: WWE's TLC Pay-Per-View: History Is Made

Last night was the TLC Pay-Per-View which, unlike the Hell in the Cell, has more or less managed to remain relatively stable despite the overall product's striving for a G-rating. The brutality of TLC is markedly different from that of Hell in a Cell.

This year started with some really good PPV's, starting with the excellent Royal Rumble, where CM Punk ended his historic reign as WWE Champion. Then WrestleMania 29 was solid, if mostly predictable: Undertaker beat Punk, Triple H beat Lesnar, and Cena going over The Rock to take the championship from him. Extreme Rules was good, not great, although I thought the Lesnar/Triple H cage match was better than their WM29 match. Payback was devoted mostly to a Three Stages of Hell between Cena and Ryback, that I actually was thoroughly entertained by, your mileage may vary. And the Money in the Bank ladder matches were very strong, featuring all-star casts for both the Heavyweight Championship and the WWE Championship.

But it was SummerSlam, originally one of the four biggest Pay Per Views, that set off a string of lackluster shows that included terribly hyped matches, dusty booking swerves that served no purpose, and a lot of unsatisfied customers.
At Night of Champions, Orton, who cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to take the championship from Bryan just seconds after he won it, was defeated by Bryan, taking back the championship, who was then stripped of it the very next night.
At Battleground, (which replaced Over the Limit) Bryan and Orton were both knocked out by Big Show for some reason, and the title was vacated.
At Hell in a Cell, Orton defeated Bryan in the Cell, because Shawn Michaels as guest referee interfered and cost Bryan the match.
At Survivor Series, Bryan teamed up with Punk and they took on the Wyatt Family while Orton and Big Show had the most boring main event ever.

You have to pay 60 dollars each to see these shows. And none of the undercard matches were worth the price of admission.
The SummerSlam ending was unexpected and it was disappointing because the fact that Bryan had just pinned Cena clean was diluted by Orton cashing in. Fine, I thought. It's going to be a Bryan-chasing-the-championship storyline for a bit, that's interesting, I like it.
But Night of Champions barely a month later featured Bryan getting immediate comeuppance in a rushed and meaningless ending, rendered even more meaningless by the antics of the following night when he was stripped of the championship because of a fast count. There was no sense of justice, and then there was even less sense of victory.
Battleground was a waste of everyone's time and everyone was rightly pissed off about the ending, or lack thereof, to this show. Why had Big Show become involved in the title picture, why was setting up to Orton and Big Show, a match we've seen countless times, and why was Bryan not getting what he deserved?
Hell in a Cell's ending made absolutely no sense. There's no way for Bryan to get proper revenge because Michaels is retired. He would have to come back to action for Bryan and he to have a proper blow-off to this feud they seemingly wanted to start between former mentor and student.
And Survivor Series was as horrible as everyone predicted it would be. Big Show vs. Orton in the main event was slow and predictable. Everything else on the card was pretty much the same, and even the bright spots were not enough to save a show, mostly because they were saved by cast aside main eventers like Punk and Bryan.

But anyway, TLC, standing for Tables, Ladders & Chairs, despite only featuring one of the titular matches (and not featuring any other gimmick matches) was, while not revolutionary or overwhelmingly exciting, a step in the right direction: solid matches with solid storytelling, not relying on screwy finishes or non-wrestling meddling, and some long-term booking decisions that benefited everyone involved.

I know a lot of people were predicting TLC ending with one champion, and that that one champion might be Triple H, and the poster certainly lent itself to that theory, prominently featuring Triple H front and center, with the two champions who were actually competing inserted on the sides.
I won't spoil it now, but I'm glad to say that it didn't come to fruition, although I felt uneasy about it happening all throughout Orton and Cena's match. 
When they started using the moniker "Champion of Champions" during promos, that's when I started thinking seriously about the theory, because it would go with Triple H's other moniker: King of Kings.
Pre-Show: Dolph Ziggler VS. Fandango; R-Truth VS. Brodus Clay; The Miz VS. Kofi Kingston
Three massive wastes of time, despite pretty talented mid-carders involved.
Ziggler, once a World Champion coming off one of the hottest Money in the Bank cash-ins ever, has been relegated to the pre-show of a second-tier PPV.
Fandango, a legitimately talented wrestler with a flair for the dramatic and an ability to make the lamest possible gimmick ever work, who was once pushed from a surprise upset over Chris Jericho at WrestleMania29, has been off the radar for what seems like forever.
The match did nothing for either man.

R-Truth, whom I'm not as sick of as everyone else in the wrestling community seems to be, stole a victory from a distracted Brodus Clay. The only intriguing part about this match is a possible heel turn and new gimmick from what could soon be the former Funkosaurus.

The Miz and Kofi Kingston collided once more in what feels like their 800th match, and I didn't even bother to watch it.

Divas Champion AJ Lee VS. Natalya

You know when you stay for the Divas match and not for Miz and Kofi, you've got something special on your hands.
While I thought the hype around the match was more talk than actual excitement, there was still a level of unpredictability to this confrontation.
Lee is a great champion, and they're starting to highlight that she has one of the longer reigns of recent memory. Natalya managed to show herself to be a legitimate challenger. There were no weird gimmicks, just solid wrestling and old-school interference from the bodyguard at ringside. Tamina is going to get involved with this championship feud at some point and I predict it's going to be her that takes the belt from AJ, but until then...
This match was an awesome Divas conflict, with some great work from both competitors. It was a good amount of time and actually a very exciting match.

Intercontinental Champion Big E. Langston VS. Damien Sandow
Langston, who took the IC belt from Curtis Axel on RAW, is a force to be reckoned with. He's an old-school big man, and it's refreshing to see that kind of match being worked again in the WWE. Sandow took some hard hits and it would be nice to see him get his reward at some point. That said, a great match, and probably one we're likely to see down the road for bigger gold from these two young superstars as they delve further into their respective careers. Langston is a big man, no denying. But Sandow is no slouch, and in fact, watching them, I thought Sandow's one of the better believable match-ups for Big E.

3-on-1 Handicap Matches:
Daniel Bryan VS. The Wyatt Family: Luke Harper, Eric Rowan, Bray Wyatt
CM Punk VS. The Shield: Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and US Champion Dean Ambrose
First off, these matches would have been more appropriate under the Survivor Series moniker. It's much more about survival, and the fact that they didn't even add in chairs or tables to the match made it feel very detached from the proceedings.
Second, having BOTH matches on a single card feels redundant. One of them could have had help in some form, or what about having both of them against the six of them.
Third, having both on the card lends itself to only one story: one of them is going to pull off a miracle, and the other is going to be overwhelmed by the numbers game. They both can't win, because that's just ridiculous, and they both can't lose because that's what everyone would expect to happen in real life. In real life, one guy's not gonna beat three guys in a fight.
The key to an effective handicap match is the storytelling of the wrestlers, and luckily, we have some very good storytellers at the helm of these matches. Did they pull them off?

Punk and The Shield opened the show proper, and it was a great way to kick off. Punk is smart and wily. He's very cunning, but he's facing three very cunning foes.
I loved seeing Punk's psychology at work. He was trying to keep a great distance from the Shield's corner and tried to keep whoever he had as isolated as possible. He conserved energy, and tried to keep the Shield off-balance to see if they'd make a mistake and strike when they were vulnerable.
Over the past few weeks, with Reigns catch Punk with the Spear, it made sense that Punk was more aware and ready to avoid it, and it led to Reigns sending himself over the announce table when he missed the Spear on the outside, dropping the enforcer out of the Shield's numbers.
It was the Spear again that led to the Shield's defeat, with Punk avoiding a second Spear inside the ring and Reigns inadvertently taking Ambrose out instead.
A split is on the horizon, but I enjoyed the match not being booked by a crumbling Shield, but instead by justified accidents.
Punk looked smart because of it, and the Shield look no less strong because of it.
I give it 7/10

By virtue of going first, I could tell Bryan was going to lose his match.
But again, it was the storytelling at work here that made the match outstanding for me.
The Wyatts were sufficiently creepy, and Harper and Rowan dominated as the giants they are. Then Wyatt himself got involved and creeped everyone out with his upside-down crab walk, after which the audience chanted "That was creepy!" in the "This is awesome!" voice.
Bryan got in a flurry of offense, much like he did in the Money in the Bank match where he took out his fellow competitors before being taken out by Orton.
Anyway, Bryan gave a valiant effort but of course fell short. But I thought the ending was booked smart. Bryan kept himself from getting overwhelmed and with slower, bigger opponents, it made it look a lot easier than in the Punk/Shield conflict, and then Wyatt was booked to take the win, which was good since Wyatt himself has been booked rather poorly his last few matches.
I give it 8/10

Fatal Four-Way Match: Tag Team Champions The Rhodes Bros. VS. The Real Americans VS. Rey Mysterio and Big Show VS. Ryback and Curtis Axel

While WWE would have you believe, and even a lot of fans believe, that the Tag Team division is revitalized and is stronger than it has been in years, I want everyone to take note of the fact that as talented as I believe all these performers are, this match was made up of eight essentially failed singles competitors.
Failed is a bit of a broad term.
Big Show and Mysterio are attractions at this point in their careers. They don't have much singles life left in them but as a tag team they make sense.
Goldust, while certainly in one of the best runs of his career is also on the far side of his singles run.
Cody has failed to main event, as has Jack Swagger, Antonio Cesaro, and Ryback. Swagger, Rhodes, Ryback, and Axel have also been given main event opportunities and failed to deliver. Basically, these are four teams born out of necessity rather than being real tag teams. These teams are far cries from The Hart Foundation, the Rockers, Demoltion, and the Legion of Doom.

Alright, that aside. This was very much the match of the night. I would've enjoyed adding in a gimmick of chairs or ladders or something (THIS IS TLC, AFTER ALL) but whatever.
I thought having the finish be the two face teams was a little odd, but I actually liked the sensitive booking of Big Show, readying Goldust before the final fight, shaking hands with the Rhodes Brothers following the match, and much appreciation was given to Rey who looked absolutely destroyed following the match, clearly he's no longer in prime fighting condition.
Swagger, Cesaro, and Ryback and Axel also looked incredibly strong despite being taken out first and second from the match.
The crowd loved it, most importantly, chanting, "This is awesome!" as Mysterio joined the fray, and that is what let's me give this the match of the night. Booking both heel teams to lose aside, I give it 9/10.

Championship Unification Match: World Heavyweight Champion John Cena VS. WWE Champion Randy Orton in a Tables, Ladders, and Chairs Match
There was certainly a big match feel to the proceedings, and the promo videos definitely make you feel something important is about to go down. But the promo videos always do that. If the matches always lived up to the promos WWE makes then there'd be no problems or complaints ever.

There's no denying how big Cena and Orton are and have become since their days in Ruthless Aggression and the Brand Extension. I respect them both as athletes and wrestlers, though I've never been a particular fan of either. Orton's wrestling ability outweighs his lackluster charisma and on the flip side, Cena's dangerously good promos and abilities on the mic make up for his limitations in the ring, much like Hulk Hogan. He's a legitimately strong and athletic guy too, and I respect the hell out of him for trying out things he wouldn't normally do.

But the Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match has a very rich legacy behind it and this could very well be one of the most underwhelming and most disappointing in a line of consistently amazing and breathtaking matches.
The problem is you have two of the most important superstars facing off in one of the most dangerous matches of all time. What truly dangerous spots can you do?
The other problem is Orton has no experience with a TLC match and Cena, as I said, always willing to try new things, he's not particularly well-versed in TLC spots. He's no Edge. Edge managed to walk Undertaker through a TLC match despite Undertaker never having performed one. But Cena wasn't going to be able to do that with Orton and that was quickly obvious.
There were no interesting ladder spots, the chair use was pretty typical of a regular match, and there were two big table spots:
One was disappointing, because it was just Orton falling off the apron onto a table on the outside.
The other was supposed to be the finale, with Cena going through a table he had set up in the corner from the top of the ladder. Cena and Orton botched the spot, with Cena smacking his face on the bottom of the table and laying out until Orton, who couldn't think on his feet to do anything better (despite having plenty more time in the broadcast) made a slow climb up the ladder and gingerly removed the belts, the most disappointing ending to a pretty safe TLC match.
I'm also not happy that they redid the CM Punk handcuffs spot, and it played out in more or less the same fashion, with the exception of the botched table spot that followed.
Match rating: 6/10. Interesting, but mostly disappointing.

So for better or worse, your undisputed, unified, WWE World Heavyweight Champion is The Viper, Randy Orton.

Going into WrestleMania season, I think the most deserving of taking the new championship at WrestleMania is of course Daniel Bryan, so it's likely he'll win the Royal Rumble to set that up. Barring that storyline, I'm not really sure what direction the championship scene will head into if they decide not to go with Bryan's redemption and justice fulfillment.
Orton's a boring champion and the crowd, who is normally pretty polarized by Cena, was much more firmly in his corner than they were in Orton's.
I'm not looking forward to Orton VS. Bryan again, even if a definitive ending at WM is planned, but it could very well be Punk who instead goes into the title picture (maybe he wins the Rumble or the Chamber? And down the road, maybe the indy wrestling circuit gets a dream championship bout between Punk and challenger Daniel Bryan?)
As for Cena, his rematch will most likely come at the Rumble after which I'm hoping it's about time we had Cena against Undertaker at WM30 (that is, if the Hogan rumors turn out to be false).
I said earlier that I thought TLC was a better Pay-Per-View than the last few, despite an underwhelming finale. And I still stand by that statement. A disappointing ending is still an ending, which is more than can be said for the previous PPVs. While none of the matches felt particularly special, they were well-worked, and the crowd got behind the IC and Tag Team matches especially. For the last Pay-Per-View of the year, it wasn't a bang, but it definitely wasn't a whimper either.