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A tale of two WWEs

Tables, Ladders and Chairs in Boston on 13 December was nothing to write home about, although I’ve just written about a thousand words on it that you’re about to read. But let’s go with the spirit of that figure of speech, shall we?

The middle-of-the-road nature of the show should come as little surprise as it’s hardly one of WWE’s major pay-per-views; in fact it’s one of the more annoying ones, where the matches fit the gimmick rather than the other way round (see also: Hell in a Cell, Money in the Bank, Elimination Chamber). It wasn’t a bad show as such; compared to last year, with Dean Ambrose and the exploding TV set, it was definitely an improvement. But with WWE in a creative holding pattern due to the loss of Seth Rollins and the temporary absence of John Cena, there wasn’t much at stake at any point of the card, and especially in the main event. Try as they might to push Roman Reigns’ enmity with the corporate champion Sheamus, it’s a stop-gap feud at best. We all know it. And I’m not feeling it.

Their TLC match was what it was; it changed nothing, other than painting Reigns as a petulant brat with his post-match fit and unprovoked attack on his boss Triple H. The echoes of Austin/McMahon got that over with the Philly crowd the following night, which surprised me — this is the same venue that jeered The Rock when he tried to give Reigns the rub at last year’s Royal Rumble — but where was the reason for it? Reigns is hardly being held back by The Authority like Daniel Bryan was two years ago; if that were the case, shenanigans would’ve kept him as far from the title picture as possible instead of where he actually was, winning the belt from Sheamus on Monday Night Raw, with the practical blessing of Mr McMahon himself. (The decision wasn’t overturned, after all.)

And here’s the thing: I actually like Roman Reigns. I agree with what the guys on the Shake Them Ropes podcast said in their review of the show: he’s so charismatic in the ring, but his promos are the polar opposite, so why do they insist on having him talk? And especially lumping him with infantile material like that ‘tater tots’ shite from the previous week’s Raw. I miss the strong, silent Roman Reigns; the smarmy, vaguely creepy guy we have now is an arsehole, quite frankly.

But god bless ’em, at least some people in WWE are trying. Case in point was the opening triple threat ladder match between tag champs The New Day, the Usos and the Lucha Dragons, which was as wild a spotfest as you can imagine and then some but remembered to tell a story — a basic one (The New Day as dastardly heels usurping the virtuous faces) but a story nonetheless. The three teams are clearly working together to get the ball rolling on something special that could lift all of them to the next level, like a contemporary version of the Dudleys/Hardys/Edge & Christian triangle. They even met in the ring on Raw the following night for a post-match handshake session, much like those guys did, which was a little too on-the-nose for my liking (and ended with the faces beating down the heels with no justification). Who knows how far they’ll be allowed to go with it.

Speaking of the Dudleys, they were part of the ECW Originals team with Tommy Dreamer and Rhyno taking on The Wyatt Family in a humdrum tables encounter that I’ve tried to watch twice now but both times my mind’s wandered elsewhere in the first couple of minutes. Erick Rowan took the fall for his team yet again, I remember that much. Before that, Rusev squared off with Ryback the angle killer in a gimmick-free battle no different from any random Raw or SmackDown clash, and Alberto Del Rio slapped chairs with Jack Swagger in the first (and likely last) skirmish of their enforced feud (Del Rio’s split with his would-be manager Zeb Colter, who used to be in Swagger’s corner; that’s about as much substance as there is to it). Putting Rusev and Del Rio in the League of Nations with Wade Barrett and Sheamus is the best thing they could have done with those guys, because fuck knows if WWE has any clue what else to do with them.

Another forced feud — a bucket of popcorn and a soft drink in the face, literally — precipitated Dean Ambrose versus Kevin Owens for the Intercontinental Championship, but at least the result was a thoroughly entertaining wrestling match (I love when Owens plays to the gallery with his in-match chatter) albeit one with a surprise ending as Ambrose snagged the belt. That was the only question mark on the match for me, because it’s not like Ambrose needs the title, whereas having the belt is Owens’ whole raison d’être as a prizefighter. And what’s more, the title change telegraphed the result of the main event, which just shows a sorry lack of foresight on Creative’s part.

Also on the card, Charlotte (with dad Ric Flair at ringside) defended her Divas title against Paige in a passable bout but one that paled in comparison to the exciting pre-show encounter between Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks (who is finally getting somewhere with the Team BAD gimmick, even if the brief is essentially ‘female New Day’). Is it hurting Charlotte to double down on the Flair connection by putting Dad in her corner? I think so. But it’s only the latest poor decision they’ve made with the Divas division. I mean, Becky Lynch is the only babyface left among them. How does that work?

The main roster women’s division needs a rethink, for sure. On the other side of the WWE Universe, NXT’s women are going through their own transition, too — losing three at once left a talent gap in most people’s eyes — but the rebuilding process seems more clearly mapped out, and it’s turning out to be a two-pronged approach.

Three days after TLC, NXT TakeOver London began with a brilliant example of the first prong as Asuka took the next step on her path of rage through Emma, a natural continuation of the feud she’s had with the Aussie and her accomplice Dana Brooke since she started a few months ago. Asuka destroyed Brooke at the last TakeOver event in October, in what was the latter’s strongest match to date (selling is a cornerstone of ‘workrate’, and she sold like a champ for a wrestler far more accomplished than her). This was a different prospect, a proper ‘wrestling’ match with an opponent more on her level, and they both delivered the goods in a thrilling bout with plenty of story to thread the spots, and an immensely satisfying finish with a twist on the old ref-bump/foreign-object cliché.

It was an auspicious start to a two-hour show that blew TLC out of the water in terms of in-ring performance, psychology, storytelling, general entertainment level — the whole kit and caboodle. TLC wasn’t a bad PPV, as I said before, but that has to be taken in context; fans are increasingly grateful when the big monthly shows aren’t utter disasters. In the light of what went down in London just days later, it’s clear they can do so much better. (So why don’t they?)

The match for the NXT Tag Team Titles (represented by my favourite belts in WWE right now — look at that design, and they’re each other’s opposite!) pitted new champs The Mechanics (okay, they’re Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson, but The Mechanics is a far better name) against the super-over Enzo Amore and Big Cass in the night’s biggest grudge match. Now, I’m not really sold on Dash and Dawson, as they’d have us know them. One (Dawson) is so much better than the other that the Brainbusters comparisons don’t quite pass muster; Dash is not exactly the Tully to Dawson’s Arn. But they’re an efficient unit, their endomorphic physiques conveying toughness as much as their work-the-body-part offence conveys strategic ferocity. As for Enzo and Cass? They’re just natural entertainers, and you can’t teach that. While the teams’ styles clash and it didn’t make for a memorable match for me in the ring, it’s a joy to see (and hear) how much the crowd was behind the faces (and treating them to the more memorable football-ground chants of the night).

Baron Corbin against Apollo Crews was another odd pairing, despite the logic behind it (Corbin, the NFL player turned wrestler who’s not that great, dismisses Crews the indie darling, who’s fantastic by definition). But the results surpassed expectations, Crews helping Corbin to his best match to date — accentuating the positives and hiding the negatives, as Paul Heyman might put it. Crews fell to Corbin in the end, but he can take the loss; Corbin needs all the momentum he can get if he’s to go any further in this thing. (He doesn’t have the look for me, that face is not intimidating, and his finisher doesn’t work, but he’s tall, and Vince likes tall.)

The same dynamic was present in the NXT Women’s Title match between big, bad Nia Jax (who has the worst theme music for a heel in recent memory; scrap it and Dash and Dawson’s craptune while you’re at it) and the people’s champ Bayley, but the execution was superior. Indeed, the psychology of this one was expertly done: Bayley’s usual technical offence was rendered moot against an opponent the size and style of Jax, so a very different approach was required. Cue a meticulous series of ranged attacks by the champ against her imposing challenger, like wearing down the boss in a video game. Flying elbows, sentons off the top — all Bayley could do was drops bombs on Jax and hope to absorb the punishment when the tables inevitably turned.

But the genius part was Bayley eschewing her finisher, the Bayley-to-belly (because there was no point, was there?) in favour of a guillotine choke, applied twice with determined persistence, to literally squeeze out the hard-fought victory. The limited but improving Jax looked like a real contender despite her defeat, while Bayley added another dimension to her adaptable skill set. It wasn’t the best women’s match on the card in terms of variety, but for story it was hard to beat.

And what’s more, it meant that yet again an NXT Women’s Title bout took the shine off the ostensible TakeOver main event, which this time saw NXT Champion Finn Bálor defend against Samoa Joe. It’s nothing on those two at all; viewed in isolation from the rest of the show, they put on a consummate battle befitting their strong-style experience (Joe trained at Simon Inoki’s dojo in Santa Monica, where Bálor, then plain old Fergal Devitt, was scouted by New Japan; the rest is history). But a cool-down after the high of Bayley’s match — an in-ring interview bit, something like that, anything to vary the pace — would surely have helped matters, and set things up for the Bálor/Joe match to be something special in its own right. Too much of a good thing, y’know?

If that’s the worst complaint I can make, there little’s doubt that NXT is setting up for a pretty spectacular 2016. My only concern for the future is that NXT is increasingly unsuitable for its original purpose, as a proving ground to prepare new talent for the main roster. Undoubtedly there have been successes in that programme: Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, the Wyatts (to varying results), even Roman Reigns. But I can’t ignore the ones that failed to catch on, the Bo Dallases and Adam Roses and Emmas. I see Neville burdened with Dumbo jokes and a stupid cape. I see the amazing Tyler Breeze flounder on a stage where the people in charge — Vince and Kevin Dunn — don’t get his kind at all.

Today’s NXT is, under Triple H’s stewardship, coming into its own as an alternative to the main roster, not just a farm team. With more touring in the offing, a more distinct visual presentation — the old-school lighting of the recent TakeOver specials is no accident — and the Breaking Ground reality series putting the spotlight on some of the Performance Centre prospects that have yet to make it to TV, its growth seems set for the coming months. The question is, what does that mean for the main roster, the A team? Is NXT simply a means for Triple H to prove he can take the reins from Vince (or more realistically Kevin Dunn, by many accounts a sexist oaf with an open disdain for wrestling and wrestlers and who’s been holding back WWE for years). Is the current trajectory sustainable? Can it take the inescapable promotion of Bayley and Finn Bálor to the main stage? Will they even survive the transition? I have no answer to any of that, I’m only hoping for the best. But the fact that I’m more excited than fearful to see what happens next? That’s a good thing.