At the last Smackdown-exclusive Pay Per View of 2016, there were a lot of factors working against a memorable show. December PPVs are traditionally the least-watched shows of the year, they’re usually a prelude to weeks of filler shows on TV while we wait for the holidays to end so the build to the Royal Rumble can get underway, and the matches that take place often get ignored in year-end awards due to voting deadlines. And while this year’s edition of TLC may not have been a blow-away show from top to bottom, from what we saw, the good outweighed the bad, and the really good stuff was pretty darned awesome. Here’s some thoughts we had after watching the latest PPV offering from the blue brand.
Storylines Have To End So Others Can Begin
Here’s the thing about Heath Slater and Rhyno. They had a great story about Slater trying to earn a contract and prove he belonged on the roster, providing for his slightly weird redneck family and generally living the American Dream. He and his unlikely friend Rhyno climbed to the top of the mountain and won the Smackdown Tag Team Championships, Slater got his contract, and the fans got an emotional payoff to an engaging storyline. But they were never going to be champions forever, and a new story needed focus, so it was absolutely the right decision to have them lose the titles to the totally united and absolutely not only a few weeks (a couple of months, tops) away from Randy Orton RKOing everyone Wyatt Family. A large problem with WWE over the years is dragging out storylines to squeeze out extra PPV matches, until nobody cares about what’s going on. Not so in this case, as Slater and Rhyno got their moment, even got a sizeable reigns as champions, and now step aside so new wrestlers can have their time. Isn’t that whole idea of constantly creating new stories supposed to be what this whole thing is about, after all?
The Opposite Of Sasha-Charlotte
Listen, we don’t want to hold every woman on the roster up to the standards of Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair, who are two of the best wrestlers on the roster and work together like they share the same (somewhat crazy and danger-addicted) mind in two bodies, but presenting Nikki Bella and Carmella in a No DQ match in basically the same week as Sasha and Charlotte tore the house down in a Falls Count Anywhere match on Raw is just asking for an unfair comparison. Even though she is entirely a relic of the old “Divas” generation and should absolutely not be presented as part of the future of women’s wrestling, we can respect that Nikki Bella has improved as a wrestler. However, she is not at the level where she can carry a still fairly green wrestler like Carmella, even giving them all sorts of weapons to hide the lack of actual wrestling taking place. We’re not saying every woman should be willing to take kendo stick shots that leave marks all over their bodies, but when Carmella is visibly turning her body to ensure that she only takes them on her butt, one can’t help but feel like maybe she shouldn’t be in this sort of match in the first place. And we don’t want to get all Bret Hart up in here, but while Nikki giving Carmella a massive black eye on Smackdown added some energy to the feud, accidentally potatoing someone like that is actually the opposite of being a good and safe worker, and shouldn’t be lauded.
What A Twist?
But wait, we’re not done with Nikki and Carmella, because in a shocking reveal, Carmella announced that it was not her who attacked Nikki at Survivor Series, but it was, in fact, Natalya! We’ll pause for you to gasp at this totally unexpected piece of information. Wait, was there anyone on the planet who didn’t already think it was Natalya in the first place? The whole storyline leading up to Survivor Series was that Natalya feels like she’s the best wrestler in the Women’s Division but getting totally overlooked, and lost her chance to be on the Survivor Series team to Nikki, then weaseled her way into being the team coach and unofficial substitute should anything untoward happen to anyone before the match. Also, she believes song lyrics are motivational tools. We’re no Angela Landsbury, but we’re pretty sure we figured out the most likely suspect, there. Honestly, we should be giving Smackdown more points for actually making the logical choice, rather than going with a swerve, but there is still time…
Really Good At Being Bad
Listen, we get that people like Dolph Ziggler’s character for some strange reason, but him losing the final match of the feud with Miz, even though it took multiple (completely legal) kicks to the nuts to do it, is absolutely the right choice. There’s always talk about how WWE needs to “elevate” their titles, making them seem more valuable and thus making title wins meaningful. And while we’re not thrilled with Miz and Ziggler trading the belt back and forth the last few weeks, they have managed to make the Intercontinental Title mean something, simply by their desire to have it, and the lengths they’ve been willing to go to keep it. And The Miz especially has been in his element as the bad guy, who also has a pretty justifiable beef with Daniel Bryan, but is just such a jerk about it that you want him to get humiliated and lose horribly. Except he’s also actually good at wrestling and keeps winning, so you just hate him even more. We don’t know who’s going to unseat Miz in a glorious moment that could be a career-defining moment for someone, and as much as WWE keeps teasing, we’re not going to believe that Bryan has one more match in him so we don’t get our hearts broken again, but whomever topples Miz is going to actually get their hands one a title that is currently one of the most prestigious in WWE, and that’s not just a marketing slogan.
Here’s A Crazy Thought, What If Goliath Won?
Not us, we’re already winners. We’re talking about the age-old story of David and Goliath. Hey, WWE is and always has been a Land of Giants, so it shouldn’t be a huge shock that Baron Corbin is a huge pet project of someone backstage. And as Chairs Matches go, this may have been one of the best we’ve ever seen, although we’ll caution you that this statement is on par, in our eyes, with ones such as “a relatively small natural disaster, with minimal property damage and no loss of life”. Of course, the match was also a representation of WWE’s constant refusal to believe that a good little man can beat a good big man. The closest we’ve ever come was Rey Mysterio, and we all remember how his World title reigns went, right? We’re not even saying WWE is wrong to push Corbin over Kalisto, but they have this constant thing about setting up underdog storylines where their smallest guys go up against overwhelming odds, and then get crushed. It’s like the opposite of what John Cena does, and it doesn’t help that WWE is currently trying to build a division around those smaller guys, while also having the one guy on Smackdown who fits that same description get murked by a guy whose redeeming qualities include “is tall” and “has learned he needs to wear a shirt to cover up his weird stomach”.
Doing Things That Make Sense
It sounds obvious, but bear with us. As much as Becky Lynch deserved to be the first Smackdown Women’s Champion, much like Slater and Rhyno, she got her moment and a nice reign, and it’s time for someone else to have a turn. Alexa Bliss may or may not end up being the right decision, because while she’s improved massively, she might not be the best choice to carry the division, but at least Smackdown decided to take a shot with someone else. It would have been so easy to just keep Becky as a dominant champ and feed her another challenger, but Smackdown chose to fight the desire to remain stagnant with a known quantity and have someone like Bliss show she can hang at that level. Smackdown has made up for their lack of star power in their Women’s Division compared to Raw by making sure that everyone they have is at least involved and being used, and part of that is going to involve making Bliss into a viable champion, even if we really liked Becky getting to be champion.
Good Thing We Left A Spot Open On Our ‘Match Of The Year’ List
Clearly AJ Styles believed he hadn’t cemented his spot on enough “Wrestler of the Year” lists and decided to have one more awesome PPV match before 2016 ended. It can be hard to have two ladder matches on the same PPV, because you really need to avoid copying the same style in both, but Styles and Ambrose eschewed the focus on climbing the ladder that Ziggler-Miz had, and instead decided to beat the hell out of each other for twenty minutes before anyone seriously attempted to even try and go for the title. The result was the sort of brawl you want to see in a TLC match, complete with ridiculous spots that make you sit up and go “No, no, no, NO!” because you’re worried someone’s about to die. For us, that would be Styles hitting a slingshot 450 splash onto the floor through a table, and we’ll give a close second to the suplex into a powerbomb through chairs spot that may have defied the laws of physics but also made us inadvertantly curse out loud. In the end, Styles won another excellent match in a string of him, and even the match-ending interference made sense and played into the way the feud has developed.
Two Hands And A Bad Plan
Let’s talk about that interference, as James Ellsworth deliberately helped Styles retain the title. We assumed it would be an actual heel turn from Ellsworth, who we believed wasn’t an idiot and had to know that Ambrose was constantly making fun of him, and decided to get revenge. Hey, at least Styles never pretended he cared. Of course, that wasn’t the case, and Ellsworth explained on Talking Smack that he wanted to use his World title shot against AJ, since he’s (very technically) 3-0 against the Champ and thinks he’s got Styles’ number. After all, who wouldn’t be incredibly confident with three wins in 2016? The great thing is, that also makes sense! Ellsworth isn’t a guy who got pushed too far, he’s gotten delusions of grandeur after going from Braun Strowman’s chew toy to a beloved WWE Superstar with thousands of fans chanting his name! Plus, he’s kind of an idiot and thinks Dean Ambrose will be okay with it if Ellsworth gives him a title shot once he wins. One way or the other, James Ellsworth is going to get creamed on Smackdown this week, and whether Styles murders him in the ring or Ambrose gets to him first, it’s going to be an insane culmination of some great writing by the Smackdown creative team.
That’s Not PG!
We have to take a minute to talk about AJ Styles’ wardrobe malfunction during the main event, because if you’re like us, when you noticed it, it was hard to pay attention to anything else. So, somehow during the match, Styles ripped a hole in his tights which, had it happened a couple of inches to the left, would have led to a whole bunch of public apologies. As it is, it’s possible many of the replay photos from this event will have to crop Styles from the waist up in order to maintain Smackdown’s PG rating. Honestly, we don’t have any spectacular insight into the event, but we did wonder what would have happened if the hole had continued to grow during the match, which doesn’t seem like an impossibility given the environment of the match and the fact that Styles went through several tables before the finish? Is there a point at which WWE has to stop the match and get Styles a new pair of pants? How much visible cheek is too much, and would the fact that AJ was also clearly bleeding play a factor? Is this confirmation that AJ Styles wrestles “commando”? Was Vince McMahon backstage yelling at camera guys to stop shooting Styles from behind, and telling the referees to make sure he only climbed the ladder from opposite the hard camera? These are the things that keep us up at night.
Don’t Tell Us How To Feel
One one hand, aspects of WWE’s production values are among the best in TV, and a big reason why they’re the #1 televised wrestling company in the world. On the other hand, they also do a lot of things that are terrible. The good news is, ever since people started counting the ridiculous number of jump cuts taking place in the average match on Raw, they’ve at least tried to cut back on that, but last night at TLC showcased a new production trend that they need to put a stop to immediately. We’re talking, of course, about how every single replay they showed concluded with a shot of someone in the crowd reacting. We get it, you want to show people having fun at live events, and we’re not saying you can’t cut to crowd reactions during a match. But cutting to a crowd reaction during a replay is literally saying “You should have felt like this when you watched this happen. Be like this person!” Maybe we’re over-reacting, but it seems like WWE simply doesn’t trust its audience to react “correctly”, and rather than adapt what they’re doing to get the right reactions, they’re actually searching the crowd for people doing it the way they want, and trying to influence everyone else to react the same way. Either that or they really want us to keep making memes out of the stupid faces they catch people making, and we didn’t need their help with that.
Evil Wins, But It’s Okay
You might have noticed that all the bad guys won at TLC. Well, Nikki Bella won, but her alignment likely depends on your feelings about the Total Diva. But aside from that, the heels had a clean sweep, and every title on Smackdown is now in the wrong hands. Now, that should be depressing, and maybe once the glow of the TLC match wears off it will be, a little. But this is the perfect time for Smackdown to descend into darkness, ruled by heels at all levels. Because when the holiday shows finish up and the build to the Rumble begins in earnest in 2017, you’ll realize that we’re on the Road to WrestleMania, which is the event where you’re supposed to see all sorts of good guys finally conquer their foes and get that big WrestleMania moment. But to have that moment, there needs to be a period where the heels are ascendant, and that’s where Smackdown is right now. We’re not saying you go overboard and, say, have evil Authority figures run rampant for several years or something, because that would be dumb, but roughly four months, building to potentially happy moments at the biggest event of the year? Once again, that’s actually good writing. Smackdown might not fulfill the hopes and dreams of all their babyfaces at Mania, but they’ve certainly put themselves in the right position after TLC.