101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die
October 2012 COTM: 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die - #42
Nov 19, 2012 - 5:14:11 AM
CM Punk vs. Jeff Hardy
Tables, Ladders and Chairs Match
World Heavyweight Championship
August 23rd, 2009
Ok, so first of all let me say that it was an honour to win a second straight Columnist of the Month award and to be able to again post here on the main page. Before I get started with my next choice in this monolithic list, allow me to state my opinions on the ladder match format. Had this been another CF exclusive effort, such a thing would be rendered unnecessary as any of those who know me fairly well, or those who have been following this series from day one, would know those feelings very well. However, given the mainstream audience who may, or probably will not, be reading this today I do feel a need to re-establish that before launching into this thing proper.
The ladder match is something I do not like. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say I abhor it and all of its ugly twenty-first century stepchildren – tag ladder matches, Money in the Bank ladder matches and yes, TLC matches too. The reasons for such negative feelings are simple. I am a fan of pro wrestling and a bit of an old school one. My favourite wrestler is Bret Hart and my favourite kind of wrestling is well thought out, multi-layered storytelling, the kind you can watch over and over again and still get as excited about as you did the first time you saw it. I like pro wrestling that isn’t afraid to make emotional demands of me as a fan and viewer.
What I dislike is the modern day trend to get cheap instant gratification through the cheapest, quickest and easiest means, whether it be through that irritating obsession with the overly long false finish or through foregoing any logical sense of in-ring storytelling or discourse in favour of some simple car crash stunts and a decided lack of synthesis. The latter, of course, is a crime of which any twenty-first century ladder match is guilty of. I realise that’s a strong statement to make, but it is a true one. Even the better half of modern day ladder bouts seem overly reliant on the fact the crowd is going to pop regardless, using it as an excuse to rid pro wrestling of its art and reduce it into, “I wonder how far he’ll fall this time! YEEEAAAHHH!”
On top of that is the inevitable result of them all dogmatically following the same needlessly dangerous format of being ladder matches, as opposed to wrestling matches with ladders in. There’s always a lot of talk about metaphorical bars and how they’re raised but let’s boil it down to the literal truth. One day someone is going to get killed because of this trash. The stunts are becoming too over-complicated, the danger is becoming too much and the stupidity of the spots these minds are coming up with is becoming too overwhelming for me to take. The result of it all is fate being tempted too much. It raises the question, how far will they go before the grim inevitability of what will be labelled an accident dissuades the WWE and its employees from doing the obvious thing and dialing it down again. In short, I view the ladder match, regardless of which of its many faces it wears, as something akin to a voyeuristic exercise in cheap thrills at the expense of emotionally intelligent art.
…except here. I remember at the time, when it was announced these two men would wrestle their penultimate fight in a TLC match, being filled with the same dread and exasperation I feel whenever one of these things are announced, especially with the inclusion of the manic Jeff Hardy. It wasn’t just about the fact that Punk was going into a match that put his health and his career at great risk just as he was coming into his own, it wasn’t just the fact Hardy was known for doing ridiculously unnecessary spots in that kind of an environment and it wasn’t just the likelihood of him doing something far beyond the levels of farce he had previously because he was set to leave. It was because it had been a red hot feud in a red hot summer for their brand, and to end it all we would get the same kind of stop-start nonsensical “Let’s stop fighting each other for five minutes while I set this table up and then not use it so half an hour later I can fall through it unexpectedly” rubbish we always do in TLC matches, especially one on one iterations.
Yet, much like the character of the entire feud in question, the two exceeded my expectations, shattered my negative preconceptions and put on a hell of a match that I felt was an absolute necessity for this list. It had the same risks any TLC match has yet dialed it back down enough for me, as a fan, to feel comfortable and safe watching it. Similarly, perhaps even because of such a comparatively held back approach, the match had room for some synthesis, for moves and actions to make sense and for something of a story to develop. The result was, to my mind, not only the best singles TLC match we’ve seen under WWE colours but the single best TLC match of any kind.
Sometimes in these one on one TLC matches we’ve often seen the two men start off with some actual wrestling action, introducing the weapons gradually. It is a method, truth be told, that I much prefer, so it’s unusual for me to be such a fan of a match in which Punk first introduces the weaponry early on without any real reason beyond…well…hurting the other guy. I know that makes sense given the setting, but there’s no wider sense of psychology in the early goings and, as a result, the dread that filled me when the match was first announced initially seemed warranted.
I am a big critic of Jeff Hardy too and one of the things I always found very noticeable about this match, both now and at the time, is how reckless the man often is with Punk. For example, the first time he pushes a ladder out from under Punk he does so with such zeal Punk seems lucky to have landed safely, and if there’s one thing I despise in this business it’s wrestlers who show no concern for the safety of the man they’re in there with. Such criticism aside, there is a more positive side to Hardy in this match; he is perhaps in the best shape of his second stint with the WWE, and certainly I’m sure his experience in TLC and ladder match variants, while not the sole cause, must have undoubtedly been a contributing factor to its eventual overall success.
We get a number of early finish attempts which effectively puts over the urgency of winning this thing, emphasised further by the fact both men have an early attempt at climbing their way to victory. I suppose in a sense that urgency is furthered more by how they waste no time in introducing the weaponry involved, and in fairness to them both those weapons are used in a way that doesn’t include the ridiculously long and nonsensical set ups we get in a lot of these kinds of matches.
That’s one of the two main points I want to make about the weapons used here. Part of the reason I love this match so much is because it avoids that pitfall I’ve mentioned and while the two do set up their spots as required it doesn’t take a long time to do so, and a lot of the time those set ups stem naturally out of the wider match. There’s less of a sense of fabrication in this and more a sense of natural progression. For example, when Punk sets up a table outside the corner of the ring Jeff cuts him off with offence upon returning, allowing Punk to go through said table at a later date in the bout in a way that feels natural and doesn’t displace the initial set up for the spot.
The second is the creativity involved when they use these weapons. The use of them is simple, which is refreshing, again ensuring nothing feels too contrived, but what is there is also quite original. Jeff being back dropped on the rim of an unfolded chair looks damn painful but isn’t something you see in every TLC. Punk countering a whip into the steps only to turn and lunge into a chair shot is another great example. A superplex onto a flattened ladder looks especially brutal and is the one most worth keeping your eye out for.
It’s also all very back and forth, and of course a match such as this one is largely reliant upon its sense of unpredictability to maintain the tension and drama. Just as Punk has an advantage, a weapon swings it back to Jeff. Just when Jeff looks set for a killing blow, Punk counters some other way and that’s the sort of thing that continues throughout. In fact, it’s a very good example of it taking two to tango here. Not only do they share the offence and back foot evenly between themselves, they both do an incredible job of putting over their pent up aggression. Sometimes, unfortunately in Jeff’s case, it translates into one or two occasions of over-zealous execution that threatens to endanger his opponent, and in one instance crotching himself on the ropes threatens to endanger his own health too. Overall though, it sets a tone that’s believable and admirably executed.
What’s more exemplary is the fact both men suffer from very few, if any, botches or mistimes which, in an environment such as this one, is a danger even the most experienced wrestlers can come to suffer from. Chalk it up either to the experience both men have in similar matches or simply their individual skills, but either way it’s worth applause. Also, note the lack of prolonged down time where both men lay sprawled out and battered on the mat; in the midst of all this chaos and brutality the two of them keep getting up and keep going despite the clear pain they’re both in.
As the bout goes on longer and longer, because of the naturalistic structure the two have decided to follow in this instance you’re eventually left feeling like you’ve just watched a wrestling match that happens to have a table there, a ladder here, a chair now and again. The wrestling isn’t based around the weapons but rather the weapons are inserted at sensible points among the wrestling, and as I said in my intro that is the kind of thing I can be enthusiastic about in these more outrageous stipulation matches.
The big spot of the match is worth its own attention as well. The entire thing not only screams competency but also highlights an incredible amount of talent from both men. The set-up is done, like everything else, in a very believable way as Jeff goes crazy on Punk with chairs and monitors and laying him over an announce table. You get a palpable sense of frustration with Jeff that plays perfectly off the wider angle that this match was the culmination of. The execution is clear as you like and again, the beauty of it is its simplicity. It’s nothing over-complicated and nothing that’s so dangerous one thinks twice as to whether or not it’s worth it. You get a Swanton Bomb hitting its mark through a table from a very high ladder; so simple but so effective, both in kayfabe terms of impact and real terms of aesthetics. The after effects of it continue the effectiveness as it allows the two of them to create an almost isolated sense of drama within the wider story. Jeff is being carted off which leaves Punk all the time in the world to win, despite that opportunity having arisen from Jeff’s own advantage. The hero is allowed to valiantly struggle to retain his belt but his own risk proves to be his undoing as Punk has the more energy left and picks up the win. It’s a finish that remains genius in its simplicity and is perfect proof of just why this TLC match is so damn good; nothing is overdone. Why over-complicate these things, especially in a one on one scenario?
Sometimes less is more and this entire match is perfect proof of that. And just as a final exclamation mark, we get a really cool Undertaker return, one of his most effectively executed ever I think, that rounds the night off and lets the fans leave happy.
After all that, I would hope the reasoning behind me selecting this match as a must see is obvious. Too many times do these TLC matches become too hyperbolic. Wrestlers overthink them and, ironically, the result becomes something that demands nothing of its audience. It’s the wrestling equivalent of a cue card and prompts such as, “Cheer,” “Boo,” or “Gasp” wouldn’t be out of place if they appeared on the tron. The fact it’s needlessly dangerous and one day is going to end very badly is simply the cherry on top.
Yet here we have a prime example of not just how to make a TLC match as effective as an Iron Man match in its ability to tell a story, but a match that can act in itself as a good role model, a blueprint of how to execute these bouts with relative safety and still achieve the same ends. The fact of the matter is we’re all here because we love one simple thing and that is professional wrestling. Good professional wrestling will always get crowds popping. You don’t need to substitute that with the flagrance of props and stunt work. Gimmick matches should not be an entity unto themselves, simply an exaggeration of what already exists.
By dialing it down from eleven, Hardy and Punk created something unique in the annals of TLC, perhaps even of the entirety of post-Hardy ladder match history. The fact it is unique, to me, is something of a crime, not just for the sake of safety but simply for the sake of entertainment too. I know the stipulation remains perennially popular and probably always will. I know people will always cheer them and I know it won’t be going away or even changing any time soon. I fear what the results of that may be. I can’t, nor would I be arrogant enough to tell people what they should and shouldn’t enjoy, but for me ladder matches are trash, a crime made worse by the fact this match proves they don’t need to be.
Is synthesis too much to demand? Is logic too much to expect? Wrestling makes enough demands on our ability to suspend disbelief, particularly amidst a less than stellar product, and I find the modern pattern of this particular stipulation too much of a demand, ironically because it makes no demands of me. I refuse to substitute my emotional intelligence and engagement with cheap stunts for a cheap pop. This TLC match was the best of both worlds. I hope it isn’t the last of its kind, though I feel it may be. I certainly hope it gets remembered again before it’s too late.
For all of those reasons but particularly the last, this one is an absolute must see.
Click here to watch Jeff Hardy VS CM Punk